Spaceflight Insider

Goals for NASA’s proposed Europa Lander begin to crystallize

An artist’s representation of a Europa Lander on the surface of the Jovian moon. Image credit: NASA

Members of a NASA Science Definition Team (SDT) recently completed a report on the science value for a proposed Europa lander and gave design recommendations for the notional explorer. The search for evidence life on the icy moon is near the top of the list.

Scientists believe Europa has an active subsurface ocean, warmed by tidal heating, and enriched by compounds created from the constant bombardment of the icy crust by charged particles streaming from Jupiter. (Click to enlarge) Image credit: NASA

Why Europa?

Though Europa is much further from the Sun than is Earth – more than 483 million miles (777 million kilometers), compared to 93 million miles (150 million kilometers) for Earth – scientists have long hypothesized that the icy moon harbors a liquid water ocean beneath its frozen crust.

The presence of liquid water is considered to be an essential ingredient for the evolution of living organisms, and Europa may have twice as much water beneath its crust than all of Earth’s oceans combined.

This liquid environment may be enriched with chemical compounds created by the bombardment of Europa’s surface by particles streaming from Jupiter’s intense magnetic fields, thereby providing an energy source upon which organisms could thrive.

With the ocean likely being in contact with a rocky surface deep within the moon, the three key ingredients – water, energy, and organic compounds – upon which life is built may be in abundance on the Jovian satellite.

What will the lander look for?

The fundamental goal of the mission would be to look for the direct evidence of life on Europa.

The SDT was given the responsibility to develop a series of criteria to be used to determine if life had, indeed, been found. To this end, the team made recommendations on the type and quantity of science instruments to be carried on the lander to accomplish this task.

However, looking for life won’t be the lander’s sole objective.

Scientists and engineers expect there will be subsequent missions to Europa, so the lander will be designed to gather as much data about the icy moon, and its subsurface ocean, as possible. This information will greatly benefit future missions to Europa, perhaps leading to an exploration of the moon’s subsurface ocean.

Europa is a popular destination

Though the destination may be the same, the Europa Lander is an entirely separate mission from the larger mission to the Jovian system. Popularly called the “Europa Clipper“, the orbiter will carry out a detailed exploration of its namesake moon as it orbits Jupiter once every 45 days.

Data gathered from that mission, tentatively scheduled for the early 2020s, will help scientists and engineers fine-tune the mission for the lander. The radiation-hardened orbiter will make a pass of Europa every two weeks, many of which will be close flybys of the moon.

The lander, though, is still very much in its early design phase. NASA will hold two town hall meetings to discuss the SDT’s report and will assess the feedback from the science community.

Video courtesy of NASA / JPL



Curt Godwin has been a fan of space exploration for as long as he can remember, keeping his eyes to the skies from an early age. Initially majoring in Nuclear Engineering, Curt later decided that computers would be a more interesting - and safer - career field. He's worked in education technology for more than 20 years, and has been published in industry and peer journals, and is a respected authority on wireless network engineering. Throughout this period of his life, he maintained his love for all things space and has written about his experiences at a variety of NASA events, both on his personal blog and as a freelance media representative.

Reader Comments

Captain Capitalism

No, No, NO. Each & every dollar must be spent on returning to, and staying on, the Moon. Everything else will be much easier once those goals have been accomplished; the processes we will have developed & learned, the experience of the astronauts & Moon colonists, and the resource development. Launching other missions into the solar system will be much, much cheaper if done from the Moon. It is a worthy challenge to ourselves: not a space race with any other nation (although I imagine China would follow suit). It flows nicely with the new President’s mantras, too: Make America Great Again, and America First. All it requires is the guts to do exactly what I said: reroute each & EVERY dollar at NASA to this goal and NO other until it’s accomplished. Period.

While a Moon base with water mining and fuel production facilities would eventually be a stepping stone to the rest of the Solar System, for decades it would just be a roadblock. It would suck resources from science missions and would inevitably run into it’s own technical problems. I’m 70 and can’t wait that long to find out if there is life on Europa (and by implication common place throughout the Universe).
A Falcon Heavy / Dragon based probe looks like the quickest and cheapest option.

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