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NASA’s Europa Mission Begins With Selection Of Science Instruments


Bizarre features on Europa’s icy surface. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Bizarre features on Europa’s icy surface. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA has selected nine science instruments for a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, to investigate whether the mysterious icy moon could harbor conditions suitable for life.

NASA’s Galileo mission yielded strong evidence that Europa, about the size of Earth’s moon, has an ocean beneath a frozen crust of unknown thickness. If proven to exist, this global ocean could have more than twice as much water as Earth. With abundant salt water, a rocky sea floor, and the energy and chemistry provided by tidal heating, Europa could be the best place in the solar system to look for present day life beyond our home planet.

“Europa has tantalized us with its enigmatic icy surface and evidence of a vast ocean, following the amazing data from 11 flybys of the Galileo spacecraft over a decade ago and recent Hubble observations suggesting plumes of water shooting out from the moon,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “We’re excited about the potential of this new mission and these instruments to unravel the mysteries of Europa in our quest to find evidence of life beyond Earth.”

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NASA Research Reveals Europa’s Mystery Dark Material Could Be Sea Salt


 Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute

NASA laboratory experiments suggest the dark material coating some geological features of Jupiter’s moon Europa is likely sea salt from a subsurface ocean, discolored by exposure to radiation. The presence of sea salt on Europa’s surface suggests the ocean is interacting with its rocky seafloor — an important consideration in determining whether the icy moon could support life.

The study is accepted for publication in the journal Geophysical Research Letters and is available online.

“We have many questions about Europa, the most important and most difficult to answer being is there life? Research like this is important because it focuses on questions we can definitively answer, like whether or not Europa is inhabitable,” said Curt Niebur, Outer Planets Program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Once we have those answers, we can tackle the bigger question about life in the ocean beneath Europa’s ice shell.”

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Signs Of Europa Plumes Remain Elusive In Search Of Cassini Data

December 19, 2014 Leave a comment

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute

A fresh look at data collected by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft during its 2001 flyby of Jupiter shows that Europa’s tenuous atmosphere is even thinner than previously thought and also suggests that the thin, hot gas around the moon does not show evidence of plume activity occurring at the time of the flyby. The new research provides a snapshot of Europa’s state of activity at that time, and suggests that if there is plume activity, it is likely intermittent.

The Europa results are being presented today at the American Geophysical Union fall meeting in San Francisco and published in the Astrophysical Journal. Europa is considered one of the most exciting destinations in the solar system for future exploration because it shows strong indications of having an ocean beneath its icy crust.

Members of Cassini’s ultraviolet imaging spectrograph (UVIS) team analyzed data collected by their instrument during the brief time it observed Europa in 2001, as Cassini sped through the Jupiter system en route to Saturn. The observations show that most of the hot, excited gas, or plasma, around Europa originates not from the moon itself, but from volcanoes on the nearby moon Io. In fact, from their data, the researchers calculated that Europa contributes 40 times less oxygen than previously thought to its surrounding environment.

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Venus And Jupiter: Superclose Conjunction Before Dawn On August 18th

August 14, 2014 Leave a comment

If you’re willing to rise before dawn on Monday, August 18th, you’ll be rewarded with the sight of the closest planet pairing of 2014 — and not just any planets, but the two brightest ones: Venus and Jupiter.

On that morning, these two worlds will form a striking “double star” low in the eastern sky. They will appear only 1⁄3° apart — a bit tighter than that in the eastern U.S. — close enough for both to be easily covered by the tip of your little finger at arm’s length.

You can start watching for Venus and Jupiter after they’ve cleared the east-northeastern horizon, as early as 80 minutes before sunrise, but make sure your view in that direction is wide open and unobstructed by trees or buildings. The best views will probably be from 60 to 30 minutes before sunrise, depending on how clear the air is, when the planets will be not quite so low.

As close as this conjunction is for early risers in North America, the pairing will be even tighter for skywatchers in Europe. From there, Venus and Jupiter will appear just 0.2° apart, about half the width of a pencil held at arm’s length.

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Largest Solar System Moon Detailed In Geologic Map

February 13, 2014 Leave a comment

Image credit: USGS Astrogeology Science Center/Wheaton/NASA/JPL-Caltech

Image credit: USGS Astrogeology Science Center/Wheaton/NASA/JPL-Caltech

More than 400 years after its discovery by astronomer Galileo Galilei, the largest moon in the solar system – Jupiter’s moon Ganymede – has finally claimed a spot on the map.

More than 400 years after its discovery by astronomer Galileo Galilei, the largest moon in the solar system – Jupiter’s moon Ganymede – has finally claimed a spot on the map.

A group of scientists led by Geoffrey Collins of Wheaton College has produced the first global geologic map of Ganymede, Jupiter’s seventh moon. The map combines the best images obtained during flybys conducted by NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft (1979) and Galileo orbiter (1995 to 2003) and is now published by the U. S. Geological Survey as a global map. It technically illustrates the varied geologic character of Ganymede’s surface and is the first global, geologic map of this icy, outer-planet moon. The geologic map of Ganymede is available for download here.

“This map illustrates the incredible variety of geological features on Ganymede and helps to make order from the apparent chaos of its complex surface,” said Robert Pappalardo of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “This map is helping planetary scientists to decipher the evolution of this icy world and will aid in upcoming spacecraft observations.”

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Hubble Discovers Water Vapour Venting From Jupiter’s Moon Europa

December 12, 2013 Leave a comment

Water vapour plumes on Jupiter's moon Europa (artist's impression). Image credit: NASA, ESA, L. Roth (Southwest Research Institute, USA/University of Cologne, Germany) and M. Kornmesser

Water vapour plumes on Jupiter’s moon Europa (artist’s impression). Image credit: NASA, ESA, L. Roth (Southwest Research Institute, USA/University of Cologne, Germany) and M. Kornmesser

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has discovered water vapour erupting from the frigid surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa, in one or more localised plumes near its south pole.

Europa is already thought to harbour a liquid ocean beneath its icy crust, making the moon one of the main targets in the search for habitable worlds away from Earth. This new finding is the first observational evidence of water vapour being ejected off the moon’s surface.

“The discovery that water vapour is ejected near the south pole strengthens Europa’s position as the top candidate for potential habitability,” said lead author Lorenz Roth of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas. “However, we do not know yet if these plumes are connected to subsurface liquid water or not.” The Hubble findings will be published in the 12 December online issue of Science Express, and are being reported today at the meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, California, USA.

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Clay-Like Minerals Found On Icy Crust Of Europa

December 11, 2013 Leave a comment

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI

A new analysis of data from NASA’s Galileo mission has revealed clay-type minerals at the surface of Jupiter’s icy moon Europa that appear to have been delivered by a spectacular collision with an asteroid or comet. This is the first time such minerals have been detected on Europa’s surface. The types of space rocks that deliver such minerals typically also often carry organic materials.

“Organic materials, which are important building blocks for life, are often found in comets and primitive asteroids,” said Jim Shirley, a research scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. Shirley is giving a talk on this topic at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco on Friday, Dec. 13. “Finding the rocky residues of this comet crash on Europa’s surface may open up a new chapter in the story of the search for life on Europa,” he said.

Many scientists believe Europa is the best location in our solar system to find existing life. It has a subsurface ocean in contact with rock, an icy surface that mixes with the ocean below, salts on the surface that create an energy gradient, and a source of heat (the flexing that occurs as it gets stretched and squeezed by Jupiter’s gravity). Those conditions were likely in place shortly after Europa first coalesced in our solar system.

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