NASA Europa Clipper Mission 2024-2034 Could Detect Organic Compounds

The Jupiter moon Europa is one of the best possibles places for life in the solar system outside of the Earth. It has a deep liquid ocean under 10 kilometers of ice. Europa has more liquid water than all of Earth’s oceans combined.

The Jupiter moon Europa is inside harsh radiation fields surrounding Jupiter. Even a radiation-hardened spacecraft in near orbit would be functional for just a few months. Most instruments can gather data far faster than the communications system can transmit it to Earth because there are a limited number of antennas available on Earth to receive the scientific data. The Europa orbiter needs more time to return data to Earth than the time for instruments can make close-up observations.

Europa Clipper is not a life-detection mission, it will conduct detailed reconnaissance of Europa and investigate whether the icy moon, with its subsurface ocean, has the capability to support life. Understanding Europa’s habitability will help scientists better understand how life developed on Earth and the potential for finding life beyond our planet. The SUrface Dust Analyzer (SUDA) is a mass spectrometer that will measure the composition of small solid particles ejected from Europa, providing the opportunity to directly sample the surface and potential plumes on low-altitude flybys. The instrument is capable of identifying traces of organic and inorganic compounds in the ice of ejecta.

The Europa Clipper will perform 44 flybys but will orbit away to have many months to return data. This lets the US$2 billion mission to conduct the most crucial measurements of the cancelled US$4.3 billion Jupiter Europa Orbiter concept. Between each of the flybys, the spacecraft will have seven to ten days to transmit data stored during each brief encounter. It will be able to return almost three times as much data to Earth, while reducing exposure to radiation. The 44 flybys of Europa will be at altitudes from 25 to 2,700 km (16 to 1,678 mi) each during its 3.5-year mission.

The mission is scheduled to launch in October 2024 aboard a Falcon Heavy, during a 21-day launch window. The spacecraft will use gravity assists from Mars in February 2025 and Earth in December 2026, before arriving at Europa in April 2030.

If we are lucky, the Europa Clipper will pass through one of Europa’s water vapor plumes. Plumes of water vapor erupt from the moon’s ice crust. this would let us sample the subsurface ocean without having to land on the surface and drill through the ice.

An illustration of Jupiter’s icy moon Europa depicts a cryovolcanic eruption in which brine from within the icy shell could blast into space. A new model proposing this process may also shed light on plumes on other icy bodies. Credits: Justice Wainwright.

Plumes of water vapor that may be venting into space from Jupiter’s moon Europa could come from within the icy crust itself, according to new research. A model outlines a process for brine, or salt-enriched water, moving around within the moon’s shell and eventually forming pockets of water – even more concentrated with salt – that could erupt.

Europa scientists have considered the possible plumes on Europa a promising way to investigate the habitability of Jupiter’s icy moon, especially since they offer the opportunity to be directly sampled by spacecraft flying through them. The insights into the activity and composition of the ice shell covering Europa’s global, interior ocean can help determine if the ocean contains the ingredients needed to support life.

The source of the plumes is important: Water originating from the icy crust is considered less hospitable to life than the global interior ocean because it likely lacks the energy that is a necessary ingredient for life. In Europa’s ocean, that energy could come from hydrothermal vents on the sea floor.