Pic NASA has finished sketching out plans to send a probe to Europa, Jupiter's most curious moon, and is ready to put the operation into action.
"Today we're taking an exciting step from concept to mission, in our quest to find signs of life beyond Earth," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. "Observations of Europa have provided us with tantalizing clues over the last two decades, and the time has come to seek answers to one of humanity's most profound questions."
The space agency is planning a trip to the moon in the early 2020s, and scientists are all aflutter about what could be found there. Europa is a moon that has a relatively warm ocean covered with a crust of ice. It has been speculated, most notably by Arthur C. Clarke, that the moon is our best hope to find extraterrestrial life in our Solar System.
The instruments to fly out to Jupiter have been picked, and now it's just a question of getting the orbital mechanics right, securing funding, and getting the hardware out of our gravity well.
The solar-powered probe will head out to Jupiter and begin a long series of looping orbits that will take it within 16 miles to 1,700 miles (25 kilometers to 2,700 kilometers) of Europa's surface.
Cameras and spectrometers will be taken along to study the surface and chemical composition of Europa, along with ice-penetrating radar that will scan the size of its oceans and a magnetometer that should tell us their depth and salinity.
All of this depends on funding, however. NASA is asking for US$30m next year to begin setting up the mission (about the same cost as flying a B-2 bomber for 250 hours). The final mission cost could be relatively cheap, given that NASA has advanced the science of modular space probes.
Europa, besides being a promising candidate for life, could also serve a very important role in the future of space exploration. Having abundant liquid water next to Jupiter could make the moon the filling station for a generation of space probes, provided the ice isn't too deep to drill through.
There are going to be many hurdles to get over first, not least getting the money out of the US Congress. But it does look like Europa is next on the list for human exploration – let's just hope we don't find a black monolith on the surface broadcasting "ALL THESE WORLDS ARE YOURS — EXCEPT EUROPA." ®