The Race to Europa

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Europa's surface

Europa is a pretty exciting place.

The smoothest known object in the solar system, it isn't only famous for its good looks. It's the sixth closest moon to the gas giant Jupiter, and has what is assumed to be a nickel core and an atmosphere that, while fragile, holds oxygen. It is famous for being discovered by Galileo in 1610, but  has not - as yet- been explored in any great detail by spacecraft. That, it seems is all about to change as both NASA and the ESA are primed in a race to reach the enigmatic moon.

Europa's tie to the host planet Jupiter is emphasized in her name.

While Jupiter is named after the king of the Roman Gods (aka Zeus in Greek mythology), Europa is named after one of his conquests.
For anyone familiar with Greek mythology, it's well known that Zeus was a randy deity and his wife Hera was less than impressed with his affairs. When Zeus happened upon Europa and her companions he was transfixed with her beauty and transformed himself into a white bull that was so stunning and gentle in appearance that all the women gathered around to fawn over the creature. He laid down in front of Europa and she climbed onto his back. Suddenly the bull jumped up and charged off a cliff, diving into the water below to swim out to sea with her trapped on his back. Zeus took her to Crete and  promised her that she would bear famous sons who could claim that they had a god for a father.

The real life moon mirrors its namesake in many ways. It is one that is very closely tied to water: it is believed that the crust is ice but, due to the position and shifting gravity of being so close to Jupiter, that under the surface there is liquid water. And, just as Europa begot famous sons, so too do many scientists believe that of all the places in our solar system, Europa is the one that is the most likely to birth life. Across its smooth surface, in the ice cracks, there are mysterious blooms of crimson - could these be related to the excretions of huge numbers of micro-organisms in the sea below?

The Race to Europa

Unfortunately we're not quite at the stage where any spacecraft can land on the planet due to technological limitations, and even staying in orbit with the planet for too long is dangerous for the machinery due to Europa's intense radiation fields. But nevertheless NASA and the ESA (European Space Agency) have both put forward missions and been granted funding that will allow them to launch in the mid-2020s. The ESA is currently pulling forward in the lead with the more solid date of 2022 for launch with their spacecraft 'JUICE', to reach Jupiter in 2030.

Artists impression of JUICE: ESA/AOES
JUICE stands for the 'Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer' which, if we're honest, in the world of acronyms is a bit of a cheat. Nevertheless it's plan is impressive: it is planned to set out to Jupiter to study the gas giant and, upon reaching the neighbouring Ganymede enter into humanity's very first orbit with an icy moon(!). The spacecraft will also make flybys of Callisto and Europa using various camera, spectrometers, a radar, altimeter and plasma sensors to monitor the composition of each moon and planet that it comes across, with radiation shielding to protect it and solar panels to power it on its journey.
Jupiter's moons cover a huge range of environments from volcanic to icy to rocky, so it is thought that the data gathered here could give us vital information about how similar planets in our solar system and beyond operate. Most importantly in this mission, it will give vital insights into the composition and behaviour of Jupiter - one of the largest and most alien of planets in our solar system.

Artists Impression of Europa Clipper

NASA's 'Europa Clipper' is perhaps more fully focused on the moon itself than its ESA counterpart. The plan is to place it in orbit of Jupiter and set it on a long looping orbit that would allow it to enact  45 repeated close-quarter flybys of Europa. On board there are plans for a radar to penetrate down into the crust to measure its thickness, an infra-red spectrometer to investigate what the surface is made of and an ion and neutral mass spectrometer to analyse the moon's atmosphere.

Clearly we have a whole lot to look forward to...


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