NASA is heading to Europa, Jupiter’s icy (and potentially life-supporting) moon, in the next decade. The mission could be ready for launch as soon as 2023, the agency said in a statement on Tuesday, although it is currently committed to being launch-ready by 2025.
Europa is a compelling destination: It’s the sixth-largest moon in the solar system and has a crust primarily comprised of water ice. Astrophysicists have long speculated that there is liquid water below, and potentially alien life. The Europa Clipper mission will send a spacecraft to orbit Jupiter and perform at least 45 close flybys of the moon, which will enable more detailed imagery than ever before.
“We are all excited about the decision that moves the Europa Clipper mission one key step closer to unlocking the mysteries of this ocean world,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA Science Mission Directorate associate administrator, said in a statement.
Among the instrument payload currently expected are high-definition cameras and an ice-penetrating radar, the latter of which would look for the subsurface lakes scientists think are there. A magnetometer would measure the salinity and depth of these oceans based on measurements of the magnetic field, while other equipment would look for evidence of an atmosphere and recent water eruptions on Europa’s surface.
While the Europa Clipper won’t touch down on the moon, it will provide crucial information to NASA on the feasibility and value of a surface-based mission in the future. If water is discovered that is of a similar salinity to that of Earth, the ramifications of such a discovery could be game-changing.
“Europa we don’t really get — there are these really key mysteries we’re trying to understand,” Robert Pappalardo, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory planetary scientist, told Space.com in January. “People care about it, people want to know about this mysterious world that might harbor life. That’s a really important reason to do it.”