NASA has just released a major announcement. Two outer planet flagship missions have been given the go ahead for further studies and eventual implementation.
1. The Europa Jupiter system mission
2. The Titan Saturn system mission.
What is too cool about this announcement is that most everybody was expecting approval of one or the other, not both. NASA and the European Space Agency working closely together hope to finally answer the question, is there life elsewhere in the universe.
The Europa Jupiter mission has been given priority, launch date 2020. Two orbiters, one built by NASA one by ESA will arrive at Jupiter in 2026. The orbiters will study Jupiter, Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.
I was able to reach Dr.Richard Greenberg over the phone and ask him a few questions about the Europa Jupiter mission. Dr. Greenberg is Professor of Planetary Sciences at the University of Arizona. He has written two books on Europa, "Unmasking Europa" a book for general audiences and "Europa The Ocean Moon" a more detailed book and suited for undergraduates.
Dr. Greenberg was part of a science definition team assembled by NASA to put together facts they already knew about Jupiter, Saturn and their moons and to come up with the best ideas for the two missions. When I asked Dr. Greenberg what his research group's main goal was now, he stated to continue to do research and interpret what they now know as much as possible so that when the mission is finally designed and run it will be done with as much knowledge as possible.
Dr. Greenberg who's background is in Celestial mechanics, meaning the study of the orbits and rotations of planets and their moons, first put forth the idea that the moons of Jupiter, specifically Europa might be affected by tides created by Jupiter's enormous pull on little Europa, creating what we see as crisscrossing lines or cracks on Europa's surface, that an ocean is just below a thin layer crust and that if we were able to examine the slush that comes up through the cracks created by the enormous tidal waves we could very well find some type of oceanic substances and perhaps samples of any organisms that might be present in the ocean.
I also asked him what we hope to learn from the Europa Jupiter mission that we haven't already discovered through the Galileo mission to Jupiter. He mentioned things like the orbiter being equipped with a laser altimeter which would measure the topography of the surface ice, something new. Radio tracking, allowing the gravitational field of Europa to be measured, not been done before, putting the two experiments results together will determine the amplitude of the tides, providing further confirmation of the unseen ocean.
The new NASA orbiter will be equipped with a very high resolution camera, you see the problem with the Galileo mission to Jupiter was the main antenna never opened so they had a limited amount of high resolution images sent back, not anywhere near the amount they would have liked, the new camera will produce near meter scale imaging, to see up close and personal, to image the surface perhaps at just the right time when slush is breaking through to the surface. Now, very cool, an orbiter radar, maybe able to once and for all determine the thickness of Europa's ocean covering crust, but most critical determine linkages between the ocean and the surface, the connection between the ocean and Europa's surface are what make it possible for life to flourish.
The Titan Saturn mission will consist of a NASA orbiter and an ESA lander and research balloon, the lander will actually land in one of the northern lakes of Titan and test for signs of life while the orbiter flys through the plumes of Enceladus, one of Saturn's moons again looking for any signs of life.
When all is said and done, two very exciting missions to look forward to. Looking for and finding life even microbial in our own solar system, our own backyard, increases the chances that we are not alone, that there is someone else out there, maybe even watching us right now.