In humankind’s search for life beyond our own planet, many experts believe that one of the most likely places we’ll find it is in Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa. Yes, “in” the icy moon, not “on” it.
NASA plans to drop an observation module on the moon sometime in the 2020s, but experts are now claiming that it’s going to have to drill to find any evidence.
Those who observe the moon believe that under the 10-to-15 mile-thick icy crust lies an ocean that contains twice as much water as all of Earth’s seas combined. Evidence of this ocean first emerged when the Hubble Telescope captured water vapor spouts bursting through the crust and falling back onto the surface in its southern polar region.
Some believe that these puddles are where any landing observer should start looking for evidence of life, but Ralph Lorenz, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland, says that firing off landing thrusters “will be like hosing down the ground with ammonia, and this is a very inconvenient thing to do.”
It’s all in the nitrogen found in the ammonia, which he says scientists wouldn’t easily be able to determine is from Earth or is native to Europa. The minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit temperatures on Europa would cause the ammonia to freeze and stick to other molecules on the surface.
Everything in our body has nitrogen. If you are interested in nitrogen as a prerequisite for life, then finding even traces of it at Europa is important, and so even a little thruster contamination matters a lot.
Any landing of 440-lb. on the planet’s surface would cause an area of roughly 30 feet to be contaminated, based on his calculations from the Martian landings. The observer would have to move to another location, but that increases the risk of it tipping over on rocks. Unlike Mars, the surface of Europa has not been thoroughly studied and could hold many unknown hazards.
So, we’re going to have to drill
For the best results and the most trustworthy data, experts instead believe that drilling is the best option. Doing so will allow the module to stay in place, and it should be able to reach a depth that hasn’t been impacted by landing thrusters. “We have to go down, beneath the surface,” said Britney Schmidt, a planetary scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
If we get 10 centimeters, or a meter [about 3 feet], down, this area hasn’t been blasted with the thrusters. Maybe a portion, but the confidence for getting a pristine sample goes up the further you go down.
NASA plans to use a similar Sky-crane system that was able to land curiosity on Mars, and those in charge are currently working on a way to lessen the impact on the landing site.
Shmidt also emphasizes that the results won’t be romantic like drilling directly into the ocean and finding huge alien fish.
People want us to drill into Europa and find a fish. But right now, this is not realistic;− the hope is to land there and detect biogenic molecules, the molecules essential for life.
Not realistic because Bruce Willis is probably going to be retired by the 2020s. We all understand, right?