Europa. [Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute]

Johns Hopkins Joins NASA’s JPL to Search for Alien Life on Jupiter’s Moon, Europa

Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) will join a new NASA mission to explore the surface of Europa, the moon of Jupiter for alien life forms beneath the frozen surface.

Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa, is considered one of the most promising places in the solar system to search for signs of life under its frozen ocean crust. Europa has a crust made up of blocks, believed to be the best geologic evidence to date that the Jupiter’s moon may have had a sub-surface ocean at some time in its past. (See Image)

europa alien life

Jupiter’s moon Europa has a crust made up of blocks, which are thought to have broken apart and “rafted” into new positions, as shown in the image on the left. These features are the best geologic evidence to date that Europa may have had a subsurface ocean at some time in its past.

In the late 1990s, NASA’s Galileo mission to Jupiter showed strong evidence that Europa, about the size of Earth’s moon, probably harbors a vast, salt-water ocean.

“In addition to the ocean, this icy world may have the chemical ingredients and energy sources necessary to support life, so we want to investigate whether Europa is a habitable world,” said Louise Prockter, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), in Laurel, Maryland and the Deputy Project Scientist on the Europa team.

Since 2011, APL has been working with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, and on June 17, 2015 the joint mission concept to survey Europa for its habitability passed its first major review by the agency and entered the development phase, known as formulation, with JPL managing the mission.

“This partnership represents a historic opportunity for our two institutions to collaborate,” said Mike Ryschkewitsch, head of APL’s Space Exploration Sector. “Europa has fascinated us ever since our first views of this frozen world, and this team has the right skills to accomplish this challenging mission.”

The Europa mission plan envisions a spacecraft to be launched to Jupiter in the early 2020s, that may reach the orbit of the distant planet after several years. The spacecraft would orbit Jupiter about once every two weeks, providing close 45 flybys of Europa’s surface taking images of the moon’s icy surface at high resolution and investigate its surface and tenuous atmospheric composition, as well as the structure of its interior and icy shell.

NASA selected instruments for the Europa mission’s scientific payload on May 26. Institutions supplying instruments include APL and JPL, as well as Arizona State University, Tempe; the University of Texas at Austin; Southwest Research Institute, San Antonio; and the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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