NASA has given the official go-ahead for the Europa Clipper deep-space mission to make a detailed survey of one of Jupiter’s largest moons. Scheduled to launch in about 2025, the unmanned mission can now proceed to its final design phase ahead of the building and testing of the spacecraft and its instruments.
Smaller than the Earth’s Moon, Europa is only the fourth largest of the Jovian moons, but it is of great interest to scientists because there is strong evidence that is has a global subsurface ocean beneath its ice crust. This may be twice the volume of all the seas of Earth, and some researchers believe it to be the most likely place in the solar system where life may exist – if only on the microbial level.
It’s for this reason that NASA is keen to send a mission to concentrate on a careful study of Europa, but the moon lies squarely inside Juipter’s powerful radiation belt. An orbiter mission would soon find its electronics fried even with the heavy shielding, so the Europa Clipper is designed to make 45 flybys of Europa over a three-month period, passing at an altitude of 16 to 1,675 miles (25 to 2,700 km).
This trajectory will cut down dramatically how long the spacecraft is close enough to study the moon, but it will give the Clipper up to 10 days between passes to send home the data it’s collected. Because the mission will be much longer than that of an orbiter due to the shorter radiation exposure, it will be able to transmit three times as much data.
The mission is still in a state of flux, but the current objectives for the Europa Clipper include studies of the icy crust and the subsurface ocean, the composition of the ocean, seeking signs of any recent geological activity, and determining the likelihood of life on the moon.
NASA says that, though the mission has a launch readiness date of 2025, the agency plans to have it ready by 2023 to reduce costs.
“We are all excited about the decision that moves the Europa Clipper mission one key step closer to unlocking the mysteries of this ocean world,” says Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA. “We are building upon the scientific insights received from the flagship Galileo and Cassini spacecraft and working to advance our understanding of our cosmic origin, and even life elsewhere.”