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Intriguing Europa: Active world? Habitable World? — Discovery awaits!

Presentation #400.03 in the session “Galilean Satellites”.

Published onOct 03, 2021
Intriguing Europa: Active world? Habitable World? — Discovery awaits!

Jupiter’s moon Europa is an exciting icy world with extreme environmental conditions and a plethora of geologic features driven by its elliptical orbit and resulting tidal forcing. Additionally, Europa is believed to potentially harbor conditions conducive to life. Beneath its icy shell, this moon likely hosts a long-lived, global ocean in contact with silicates and internal tidal heating that may drive hydrothermal activity at the seafloor. Harsh radiation processing by energetic particles in Jupiter’s magnetosphere produces oxidants on Europa’s surface that could work their way into the subsurface and ocean, mixing with potential reductants there. Future missions are planning to explore Europa to investigate its habitability and perhaps one day, look directly for signatures of life.

NASA’s Europa Clipper, slated to launch in 2024, will investigate Europa’s habitability, characterize the ice shell, ocean, geology and composition, and search for recent and current activity. Additionally, Europa Clipper will make high-resolution observations to characterize regions on the surface for science value and landing safety for a future landed mission. A landed mission currently under study, Europa Lander, would search for biosignatures, assess the habitability of Europa via in situ techniques uniquely available to a lander, and characterize surface and subsurface properties at the scale of the lander to support future exploration of Europa. Following such a landed mission, exploration of the subsurface and ocean could occur through a cryobot mission built to characterize the ice shell and access habitable regions in the subsurface to interrogate and characterize for signs of life.

Significant environmental challenges exist however, and would need to be overcome to access Europa’s ocean. Europa’s tides flex the ice shell by up to 30-m in certain locations, causing its surface to crack and deform, as evidenced by the pervasive tectonic features on its surface. A successful subsurface mission will require penetrating the ice shell with instrumentation robust to these forces, down to depths of kilometers to tens of kilometers, while maintaining communication with the base station at the surface. In this presentation I will provide overviews of the Europa Clipper mission, follow-on Europa mission concepts, and recent modeling and laboratory experiments we are performing to constrain the extent of potential fault activity and to develop communication technology that can perform within this hazardous environment.

Europa is a captivating world with the potential for exciting discoveries. Onward to Europa!

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