It's official, NASA is going alien hunting. The space agency announced Tuesday that the next phase of the Europa Clipper mission is confirmed, meaning that within the next four to six year NASA will be sending a spacecraft to Jupiter's moon Europa to determine if it can support life and maybe, just maybe, find a handful of aliens.
Europa is seen as one of the best, if not the best, candidates for extraterrestrial life within our solar system. Europa is slightly smaller than Earth's moon and has a crust composed mostly of water ice. Europa also has an oxygen atmosphere, although it is extremely thin and would be indistinguishable from the vacuum of space for the purposes of not suffocating. But it's not the ice surface or the thin oxygen atmosphere that excites scientists about the moon.
Because Europa is a very young moon, relatively speaking, and has the smoothest surface of any body in the solar system, scientists hypothesize that the thin ice crust of the moon actually hides a massive subsurface ocean. Estimated to be approximately 61 miles thick, this moon-wide ocean would be kept liquid by tidal flexing as the orbits close to Jupiter. Scientists believe that the ocean pulls down chemicals from the moon's surface. A big, warm-enough-to-be-liquid, salt water ocean that sucks in chemical compounds. Sounds like a prime alien-fishing hole.
The Europa Clipper mission would be the first spacecraft to study the surface of Europa. Previous missions have flown by and taken some stunning pictures, but none have been able to study what's happening on or below the surface. the confirmation of the mission allows the next steps to be taken in the construction and testing of the spacecraft and science payload. In a press release, Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said:
“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. 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.”
So when will we see it launch? 20 years? 40? Actually, it should be much sooner than that. NASA says that in the interest of cost-efficiency they are planning to have the equipment built and ready for launch as early as 2023. However they say that failing a 2023 launch date, the latest it would launch is 2025.
So it will launch pretty soon, relatively speaking. After it does launch however, Europa Clipper will take roughly six years to reach its target. This is due to space being big. So we have until 2031, on the outside range, to see if there are any alien-fish or space-dolphins out there. That is, of course, unless things go weird at Area 51 next month.