NASA’s Europa May Drill To Find Samples On Jupiter’s Frosty Moon
Space agencies across the globe are racing to detect signs of life in space. Now, NASA's Europa may drill on Jupiter's frosty moon to get samples, where scientists believe an ocean containing twice as much water as all of Earth's waters.
The ocean, which is thought to exist under Europa, Jupiter's moon's 10-to-15-mile-thick ice shell. Because of this, the 1,900-mile-wide moon is one of the scientists' bets to host extraterrestrial life.
On Sep. 26, 2016, NASA reported that its Hubble Space Telescope captured images of what seems like water vapor plumes erupting on the surface of Europa. Other observations showed the moon has high-altitude water vapor plume eruptions. These discoveries show that missions could, in fact, acquire samples from the underground ocean without having to drill through miles of ice.
"Europa's ocean is considered to be one of the most promising places that could potentially harbor life in the solar system," Geoff Yoder, acting associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C., said in a press release by the Hubble Space Telescope. "These plumes, if they do indeed exist, may provide another way to sample Europa's subsurface," he added.
It was actually a prospect for NASA, which will launch the Europa lander on the moon in the 2020s to detect chemical evidence that it could support life. However, scientists believe that the landing of the spacecraft could complicate the search. The thrusters that fire to slow the spacecraft's descent could contaminate the surface with ammonia, which contains nitrogen.
"Everything in our body has nitrogen," Ralph Lorenz, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland, told Space.com. "If you are interested in nitrogen as a prerequisite for life, then finding even traces of it at Europa is important, and so even a little thruster contamination matters a lot," he added.
It is then important to get uncontaminated and untouched samples from underneath Europa's thick surface in order to study whether the moon could support life. Other researchers think that sampling Europa's surface is important, too, but the best samples are found deeper into the moon's frosty ocean.
Could this mean modifying NASA's Europa to drill instead of sampling the moon's surface?