NASA announced plans Wednesday to embark on a 20-year project to send a spacecraft to Jupiter’s ice-covered moon Europa as its next “flagship” mission to search for life elsewhere in the solar system.
The mission, managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., focuses on the possibility that in the gigantic ocean believed to be hidden under the moon’s thick cover of ice is a habitable zone where rudimentary forms of life could exist.
The probe, budgeted to cost up to $3 billion, will launch in 2020 in tandem with another orbiter built by the European Space Agency that will focus on Jupiter’s largest moon, Ganymede.
The Europa mission’s primary scientific goal will be to produce a global map in preparation for a future mission that would land on the moon. Using radar and other devices, the probe will try to verify the thickness of the ice sheet and verify the presence of the ocean covering the 2,000-mile diameter moon.
“Europa is tremendously exciting,” said Jim Green, director of the Planetary Sciences Division at NASA. “It may have more water underground than the Earth.”
What makes Europa so important, according to Robert Pappalardo, a scientist at JPL, is that “icy satellites are the most common potentially habitable environment in the outer solar system” and therefore could be common throughout the universe as well.
NASA’s decision came down to Europa and a return to Saturn’s giant moon Titan, which had been visited in 2005.