Nasa said Tuesday it has chosen a trove of instruments to send to Jupiter’s ice-covered moon Europa, as it press forward with its search for evidence the orb could support life.
Nine instruments were selected out of 33 proposals that were put forward by teams of researchers in response to NASA’s solicitation:
- Plasma Instrument for Magnetic Sounding: PIMS can use magnetic readings to determine the thickness of Europa’s icy shell, as well as the depth and saltiness of the ocean below.
- Interior Characterization of Europa Using Magnetometry: ICEMAG will measure Europa’s magnetic field and work in conjunction with PIMS to take electromagnetic soundings of the subsurface ocean.
- Mapping Imaging Spectrometer for Europa: MISE can take spectral readings to map the distribution of organic materials, salts and other chemicals on the moon’s surface.
- Europa Imaging System: Niebur said EIS will be able to map 90 percent of Europa’s surface with a resolution of 50 meters (164 feet) per pixel. For some areas, the resolution could be up to 100 times better.
- Radar for Europa Assessment and Sounding: Ocean to Near-Surface:REASON is a dual-frequency ice-penetrating radar system that’s expected to reveal the hidden structure of Europa’s ice shell.
- Europa Thermal Emission Imaging System: E-THEMIS is a “heat detector” that should be able to spot vents where plumes of water are erupting through the ice.
- Mass Spectrometer for Planetary Exploration/Europa: MASPEX will analyze Europa’s extremely thin atmosphere and any surface material that’s ejected into space.
- Ultraviolet Spectrograph/Europa: UVS will watch for water plumes like the ones that the Hubble Space Telescope detected several years ago. (Those plumes have since faded away.)
- Surface Dust Mass Analyzer: SUDA will measure the composition of small, solid particles ejected from Europa — in effect, sampling the surface from orbit.
The instruments aboard a spacecraft will make 45 or more flybys of Europa over the course of three years, Europa program scientist Curt Niebur said. The closest flyby would pass 16 miles above the icy surface. NASA expects the mission to launch sometime in the 2020s, but many of the details — including the precise cost and the launch vehicle — still have to be worked out.
“This is a giant step in our search for oases that could support life in our own celestial backyard,” Curt Niebur, Europa program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said. “We’re confident that this versatile set of science instruments will produce exciting discoveries on a much-anticipated mission.”