May 27, 2015 04:23 PM EDT
What would you pack for the 390 million mile trip to Jupiter's icy moon, Europa? Last year, NASA posed that question to a bevy of scientists and after whittling down the final 33 proposals, they have decided on nine items that will rocket aboard the Europa Clipper, which is set to blast off sometime after 2020.
Ever since Galileo discovered Jupiter's four large moons over four hundred years ago, we have wondered about this clump of astral bodies. In 1995, a spacecraft named in the astronomer's honor arrived at the Jupiter system, sending back evidence for the existence of vast oceans on Europa's surface. Since then, scientists have been itching to return.
Preparations have begun for a new mission to Europa. The Europa Clipper will be a solar-powered spacecraft that will be launched into a three-year orbit around Jupiter, performing a total of 45 flybys of Europa. NASA has set aside $30 million of its 2016 budget for the mission, and aside from developing the spacecraft itself, the next big decision was what to put aboard. So here is the breakdown of the equipment that made the cut.
Since the Clipper will be merely skirting the surface of Europa, the primary goal is to observe the watery moon and record as much data as possible, which can then provide additional information about the moon's surface conditions. As you can imagine, cameras are at the top of the list.
Images will be collected using several techniques. The Europa Imaging System (EIS) will map Europa at 164 foot (50m) resolution, with some areas of its surface at up to 100 times higher resolution. The Europa Thermal Emission Imaging System (E-THEMIS) will be able to detect active sites on the moon's surface, such as vents which spew plumes of water into surrounding space. The Ultraviolet Spectrograph/Europa (UVS) will also search for water plumes and will even be able to capture the composition and dynamics of the moon's atmosphere.
Many of the remaining instruments will also be utilized to sample atmospheric components, such as SUDA - the Surface Dust Mass Analyzer, which will analyze dust particles released from Europa's surface following meteoroid bombardment. The Mapping Imaging Spectrometer for Europa (MISE) will identify and map organic salts, acid hydrates, water ice phases, and other materials in order to get a sense of the habitability of Europa's vast ocean.
And speaking of the moon's ocean, MASPEX (Mass Spectrometer for Planetary Exploration/Europa) will determine the composition of the surface and subsurface ocean while the Radar for Europa Assessment and Sounding: Ocean to Near-Surface (REASON) will utilize penetrating radar to characterize and sound Europa's frozen crust in hopes of revealing hidden structure's beneath the moon's shell and the potential for water underneath.
Why all the interest in Europa? From what we know so far, Jupiter's moon, with its potential watery surface, seems like a likely place to search for life. Scientific exploration has also shown that Jupiter-like planets are common around other stars and that they too might have icy moons like Europa orbiting nearby. So now we just have to get there.
In the meantime, NASA needs to start packing.
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