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  • richardmitnick 8:18 pm on December 20, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: 2015 Axial Seamount eruption, , Europa, Plumes of water,   

    From SA: “Plumes Spotted on Europa Suggest Easy Access to Water” 

    Scientific American

    Scientific American

    12.13.16
    Lee Billings

    1
    Credit: COURTESY OF NASA, ESA AND KURT RETHERFORD Southwest Research Institute

    An ocean within Jupiter’s icy moon Europa may be intermittently venting plumes of water vapor into outer space, according to a new study in the Astrophysical Journal. The finding suggests the ocean, thought to lie underneath perhaps 100 kilometers of ice, may be more amenable to life—and more accessible to curious astrobiologists—than previously thought. “If there are plumes emerging from Europa, it is significant because it means we may be able to explore that ocean for organic chemistry or even signs of life without having to drill through unknown miles of ice,” says study lead William Sparks, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute. The plumes would also suggest a potent source of heat lurking within Europa that could sustain living things.

    With the help of the Hubble Space Telescope’s imaging spectrograph, Sparks and his team observed Europa 10 times between late 2013 and early 2015 as it crossed the face of Jupiter. Watching in ultraviolet light, in which Europa’s icy surface appears dark, they looked for silhouettes of any plumes contrasted against Jupiter’s bright, smooth cloudscapes. Intensive image processing unveiled what looked like three instances of ultraviolet shadows soaring over the southern edge of Europa’s dark bulk. If the shadows were produced by plumes and not glitches in Hubble’s instruments, they would collectively contain an estimated few million kilograms of water and reach about 200 kilometers above Europa’s surface.

    Sparks acknowledges that his team’s results remain frustratingly hazy. “These observations are at the limit of what Hubble can do,” he says. “We do not claim to have proven the existence of plumes but rather to have contributed evidence that such activity may be present.” Previous evidence of similar plumes was reported in 2014 in Science, but after follow-up observations, those water vapor spouts seemed to have stopped—or were not there in the first place. In that regard, “this [new observation] is exactly as likely as the last detections” to be real, says Britney Schmidt, who is a planetary scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology and was not involved with the research.

    Such caution is justified—the presence (or absence) of Europa’s plumes could profoundly alter the future of interplanetary exploration, redirecting billions of dollars in funding toward new exploratory missions. NASA and the European Space Agency already aim to lead missions to the tantalizing Jovian moon in the 2020s.

    Science paper:
    Seismic constraints on caldera dynamics from the 2015 Axial Seamount eruption, Science

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  • richardmitnick 7:08 am on June 20, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Europa,   

    From JPL: “All Systems Go for NASA’s Mission to Jupiter Moon Europa” 

    JPL

    June 17, 2015
    Dwayne Brown / Laurie Cantillo
    NASA Headquarters, Washington
    202-358-1726 / 202-358-1077
    dwayne.c.brown@nasa.gov / laura.l.cantillo@nasa.gov

    Elizabeth Landau / Preston Dyches
    Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
    818-354-6425 / 818-354-7013
    elizabeth.landau@jpl.nasa.gov / preston.dyches@jpl.nasa.gov

    1
    Artist concept of NASA’s Europa mission spacecraft approaching its target for one of many flybys. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

    Beyond Earth, Jupiter’s moon Europa is considered one of the most promising places in the solar system to search for signs of present-day life, and a new NASA mission to explore this potential is moving forward from concept review to development.

    NASA’s mission concept — to conduct a detailed survey of Europa and investigate its habitability — has successfully completed its first major review by the agency and now is entering the development phase known as formulation.

    “Today we’re taking an exciting step from concept to mission, in our quest to find signs of life beyond Earth,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “Observations of Europa have provided us with tantalizing clues over the last two decades, and the time has come to seek answers to one of humanity’s most profound questions.”

    NASA’s Galileo mission to Jupiter in the late 1990s produced strong evidence that Europa, about the size of Earth’s moon, has an ocean beneath its frozen crust.

    NASA Galileo
    Galileo

    If proven to exist, this global ocean could hold more than twice as much water as Earth. With abundant salt water, a rocky sea floor, and the energy and chemistry provided by tidal heating, Europa may have the ingredients needed to support simple organisms.

    The mission plan calls for a spacecraft to be launched to Jupiter in the 2020s, arriving in the distant planet’s orbit after a journey of several years. The spacecraft would orbit the giant planet about every two weeks, providing many opportunities for close flybys of Europa. The mission plan includes 45 flybys, during which the spacecraft would image the moon’s icy surface at high resolution and investigate its composition and the structure of its interior and icy shell.

    NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, has been assigned the responsibility of managing the project. JPL has been studying the multiple-flyby mission concept, in collaboration with the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, since 2011.

    Instruments selected for the Europa mission’s scientific payload were announced by NASA on May 26. Institutions supplying instruments include APL; JPL; Arizona State University, Tempe; the University of Texas at Austin; Southwest Research Institute, San Antonio; and the University of Colorado, Boulder.

    “It’s a great day for science,” said Joan Salute, Europa program executive at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “We are thrilled to pass the first major milestone in the lifecycle of a mission that will ultimately inform us on the habitability of Europa.”

    NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington conducts a wide variety of research and scientific exploration programs for Earth studies, space weather, the solar system and the universe. The California Institute of Technology manages JPL for NASA.

    For more information about NASA’s mission to Europa, visit:
    http://www.nasa.gov/europa

    See the full article here.

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    NASA JPL Campus

    Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is a federally funded research and development center and NASA field center located in the San Gabriel Valley area of Los Angeles County, California, United States. Although the facility has a Pasadena postal address, it is actually headquartered in the city of La Cañada Flintridge [1], on the northwest border of Pasadena. JPL is managed by the nearby California Institute of Technology (Caltech) for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The Laboratory’s primary function is the construction and operation of robotic planetary spacecraft, though it also conducts Earth-orbit and astronomy missions. It is also responsible for operating NASA’s Deep Space Network.

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  • richardmitnick 4:35 pm on May 26, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Europa,   

    From JPL: “NASA’s Europa Mission Begins with Selection of Science Instruments” 

    JPL

    May 26, 2015
    Preston Dyches
    Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
    818-354-7013
    preston.dyches@jpl.nasa.gov

    Dwayne Brown
    NASA Headquarters, Washington
    202-358-1726
    dwayne.c.brown@nasa.gov

    NASA Europa
    This artist’s rendering shows a concept for a future NASA mission to Europa in which a spacecraft would make multiple close flybys of the icy Jovian moon, thought to contain a global subsurface ocean. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

    NASA has selected nine science instruments for a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, to investigate whether the mysterious icy moon could harbor conditions suitable for life.

    NASA’s Galileo mission yielded strong evidence that Europa, about the size of Earth’s moon, has an ocean beneath a frozen crust of unknown thickness.

    NASA Galileo
    Galileo

    If proven to exist, this global ocean could have more than twice as much water as Earth. With abundant salt water, a rocky sea floor, and the energy and chemistry provided by tidal heating, Europa could be the best place in the solar system to look for present day life beyond our home planet.

    “Europa has tantalized us with its enigmatic icy surface and evidence of a vast ocean, following the amazing data from 11 flybys of the Galileo spacecraft over a decade ago and recent Hubble observations suggesting plumes of water shooting out from the moon,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “We’re excited about the potential of this new mission and these instruments to unravel the mysteries of Europa in our quest to find evidence of life beyond Earth.”

    NASA’s fiscal year 2016 budget request includes $30 million to formulate a mission to Europa. The mission would send a solar-powered spacecraft into a long, looping orbit around the gas giant Jupiter to perform repeated close flybys of Europa over a three-year period. In total, the mission would perform 45 flybys at altitudes ranging from 16 miles to 1,700 miles (25 kilometers to 2,700 kilometers).

    The payload of selected science instruments includes cameras and spectrometers to produce high-resolution images of Europa’s surface and determine its composition. An ice penetrating radar will determine the thickness of the moon’s icy shell and search for subsurface lakes similar to those beneath Antarctica. The mission also will carry a magnetometer to measure strength and direction of the moon’s magnetic field, which will allow scientists to determine the depth and salinity of its ocean.

    A thermal instrument will scour Europa’s frozen surface in search of recent eruptions of warmer water, while additional instruments will search for evidence of water and tiny particles in the moon’s thin atmosphere. NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope observed water vapor above the south polar region of Europa in 2012, providing the first strong evidence of water plumes. If the plumes’ existence is confirmed – and they’re linked to a subsurface ocean – it will help scientists investigate the chemical makeup of Europa’s potentially habitable environment while minimizing the need to drill through layers of ice.

    Last year, NASA invited researchers to submit proposals for instruments to study Europa. Thirty-three were reviewed and, of those, nine were selected for a mission that will launch in the 2020s.

    “This is a giant step in our search for oases that could support life in our own celestial backyard,” said Curt Niebur, Europa program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “We’re confident that this versatile set of science instruments will produce exciting discoveries on a much-anticipated mission.”

    The NASA selectees are:

    Plasma Instrument for Magnetic Sounding (PIMS) — principal investigator Dr. Joseph Westlake of Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), Laurel, Maryland. This instrument works in conjunction with a magnetometer and is key to determining Europa’s ice shell thickness, ocean depth, and salinity by correcting the magnetic induction signal for plasma currents around Europa.

    Interior Characterization of Europa using Magnetometry (ICEMAG) — principal investigator Dr. Carol Raymond of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, California. This magnetometer will measure the magnetic field near Europa and – in conjunction with the PIMS instrument – infer the location, thickness and salinity of Europa’s subsurface ocean using multi-frequency electromagnetic sounding.

    Mapping Imaging Spectrometer for Europa (MISE) — principal investigator Dr. Diana Blaney of JPL. This instrument will probe the composition of Europa, identifying and mapping the distributions of organics, salts, acid hydrates, water ice phases, and other materials to determine the habitability of Europa’s ocean.

    Europa Imaging System (EIS) — principal investigator Dr. Elizabeth Turtle of APL. The wide and narrow angle cameras on this instrument will map most of Europa at 50 meter (164 foot) resolution, and will provide images of areas of Europa’s surface at up to 100 times higher resolution.

    Radar for Europa Assessment and Sounding: Ocean to Near-surface (REASON) — principal investigator Dr. Donald Blankenship of the University of Texas, Austin. This dual-frequency ice penetrating radar instrument is designed to characterize and sound Europa’s icy crust from the near-surface to the ocean, revealing the hidden structure of Europa’s ice shell and potential water within.

    Europa Thermal Emission Imaging System (E-THEMIS) — principal investigator Dr. Philip Christensen of Arizona State University, Tempe. This “heat detector” will provide high spatial resolution, multi-spectral thermal imaging of Europa to help detect active sites, such as potential vents erupting plumes of water into space.

    MAss SPectrometer for Planetary EXploration/Europa (MASPEX) — principal investigator Dr. Jack (Hunter) Waite of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), San Antonio. This instrument will determine the composition of the surface and subsurface ocean by measuring Europa’s extremely tenuous atmosphere and any surface material ejected into space.

    Ultraviolet Spectrograph/Europa (UVS) — principal investigator Dr. Kurt Retherford of SwRI. This instrument will adopt the same technique used by the Hubble Space Telescope to detect the likely presence of water plumes erupting from Europa’s surface. UVS will be able to detect small plumes and will provide valuable data about the composition and dynamics of the moon’s rarefied atmosphere.

    SUrface Dust Mass Analyzer (SUDA) — principal investigator Dr. Sascha Kempf of the University of Colorado, Boulder. This instrument will measure the composition of small, solid particles ejected from Europa, providing the opportunity to directly sample the surface and potential plumes on low-altitude flybys.

    Separate from the selectees listed above, the SPace Environmental and Composition Investigation near the Europan Surface (SPECIES) instrument has been chosen for further technology development. Led by principal investigator Dr. Mehdi Benna at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, this combined neutral mass spectrometer and gas chromatograph will be developed for other mission opportunities.

    NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington conducts a wide variety of research and scientific exploration programs for Earth studies, space weather, the solar system and the universe.

    For more information about Europa, visit:

    http://go.nasa.gov/europanews

    See the full article here.

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    NASA JPL Campus

    Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is a federally funded research and development center and NASA field center located in the San Gabriel Valley area of Los Angeles County, California, United States. Although the facility has a Pasadena postal address, it is actually headquartered in the city of La Cañada Flintridge, on the northwest border of Pasadena. JPL is managed by the nearby California Institute of Technology (Caltech) for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The Laboratory’s primary function is the construction and operation of robotic planetary spacecraft, though it also conducts Earth-orbit and astronomy missions. It is also responsible for operating NASA’s Deep Space Network.

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  • richardmitnick 1:53 pm on May 12, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Europa,   

    From JPL: “NASA Research Reveals Europa’s Mystery Dark Material Could Be Sea Salt” 

    JPL

    May 12, 2015
    Media Contact
    Preston Dyches
    Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
    818-354-7013
    preston.dyches@jpl.nasa.gov

    Dwayne Brown
    NASA Headquarters, Washington
    202-358-1726
    dwayne.c.brown@nasa.gov

    1
    A “Europa-in-a-can” laboratory setup at NASA-JPL mimics conditions of temperature, near vacuum and heavy radiation on the surface of Jupiter’s icy moon. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

    2
    A close-up of salt grains discolored by radiation following exposure in a “Europa-in-a-can” test setup at JPL. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

    3
    A salt sample inside a JPL test chamber is bathed in an eerie blue glow as an electron beam scans across it many times each second, delivering a powerful dose of radiation. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

    4
    After tens of hours of exposure to Europa-like conditions, sodium chloride samples turned a yellowish-brown color. The color is spectrally similar to that of dark features on Europa imaged by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

    NASA laboratory experiments suggest the dark material coating some geological features of Jupiter’s moon Europa is likely sea salt from a subsurface ocean, discolored by exposure to radiation. The presence of sea salt on Europa’s surface suggests the ocean is interacting with its rocky seafloor — an important consideration in determining whether the icy moon could support life.

    The study is accepted for publication in the journal Geophysical Research Letters and is available online.

    “We have many questions about Europa, the most important and most difficult to answer being is there life? Research like this is important because it focuses on questions we can definitively answer, like whether or not Europa is inhabitable,” said Curt Niebur, Outer Planets Program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Once we have those answers, we can tackle the bigger question about life in the ocean beneath Europa’s ice shell.”

    For more than a decade, scientists have wondered about the nature of the dark material that coats long, linear fractures and other relatively young geological features on Europa’s surface. Its association with young terrains suggests the material has erupted from within Europa, but with limited data available, the material’s chemical composition has remained elusive.

    “If it’s just salt from the ocean below, that would be a simple and elegant solution for what the dark, mysterious material is,” said research lead Kevin Hand, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

    One certainty is that Europa is bathed in radiation created by Jupiter’s powerful magnetic field. Electrons and ions slam into the moon’s surface with the intensity of a particle accelerator. Theories proposed to explain the nature of the dark material include this radiation as a likely part of the process that creates it.

    Previous studies using data from NASA’s Galileo spacecraft, and various telescopes*, attributed the discolorations on Europa’s surface to compounds containing sulfur and magnesium. While radiation-processed sulfur accounts for some of the colors on Europa, the new experiments reveal that irradiated salts could explain the color within the youngest regions of the moon’s surface.

    NASA Galileo
    Galileo

    To identify the dark material, Hand and his co-author Robert Carlson, also at JPL, created a simulated patch of Europa’s surface in a laboratory test apparatus for testing possible candidate substances. For each material, they collected spectra — which are like chemical fingerprints — encoded in the light reflected by the compounds.

    “We call it our ‘Europa in a can,'” Hand said. “The lab setup mimics conditions on Europa’s surface in terms of temperature, pressure and radiation exposure. The spectra of these materials can then be compared to those collected by spacecraft and telescopes.”

    For this particular research, the scientists tested samples of common salt — sodium chloride — along with mixtures of salt and water, in their vacuum chamber at Europa’s chilly surface temperature of minus 280 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 173 Celsius). They then bombarded the salty samples with an electron beam to simulate the intense radiation on the moon’s surface.

    After a few tens of hours of exposure to this harsh environment, which corresponds to as long as a century on Europa, the salt samples, which were initially white just like table salt, turned a yellowish-brown color similar to features on the icy moon. The researchers found the color of these samples, as measured in their spectra, showed a strong resemblance to the color within fractures on Europa that were imaged by NASA’s Galileo mission.

    “This work tells us the chemical signature of radiation-baked sodium chloride is a compelling match to spacecraft data for Europa’s mystery material,” Hand said.

    Additionally, the longer the samples were exposed to radiation, the darker the resulting color. Hand thinks scientists could use this type of color variation to help determine the ages of geologic features and material ejected from any plumes that might exist on Europa.

    Previous telescope observations have shown tantalizing hints of the spectral features seen by the researchers in their irradiated salts. But no telescope on or near Earth can observe Europa with sufficiently high resolving power to identify the features with certainty. The researchers suggest this could be accomplished by future observations with a spacecraft visiting Europa.

    JPL built and managed NASA’s Galileo mission for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, and is developing a concept for a future mission to Europa. The California Institute of Technology in Pasadena manages JPL for NASA.

    For more information about Europa, visit:

    http://europa.jpl.nasa.gov

    *unfortunately, the wrtiers did not give proper credit to the “various telescopes” involved.

    See the full article here.

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    NASA JPL Campus

    Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is a federally funded research and development center and NASA field center located in the San Gabriel Valley area of Los Angeles County, California, United States. Although the facility has a Pasadena postal address, it is actually headquartered in the city of La Cañada Flintridge [1], on the northwest border of Pasadena. JPL is managed by the nearby California Institute of Technology (Caltech) for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The Laboratory’s primary function is the construction and operation of robotic planetary spacecraft, though it also conducts Earth-orbit and astronomy missions. It is also responsible for operating NASA’s Deep Space Network.

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  • richardmitnick 8:28 am on May 11, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , Europa,   

    From ESA: “Chaos on a watery world” 

    ESASpaceForEuropeBanner
    European Space Agency

    11/05/2015
    No Writer Credit

    1

    Jupiter’s moon Europa is brimming with water. Although it is thought to be mostly made up of rocky material, the moon is wrapped in a thick layer of water – some frozen to form an icy crust, some potentially pooled in shallow underground lakes or layers of slush, and vast quantities more lurking even deeper still in the form of a giant subsurface ocean.

    This false-colour image from NASA’s Galileo spacecraft shows a disrupted part of Europa’s crust known as Conamara Chaos.

    NASA Galileo
    NASA/Galileo

    The long criss-crossing grooves etched into the shattered chunks of ice are a perfect example of “chaos terrain” – a feature seen most prominently in our Solar System on Europa, Mars and Mercury.

    Although the exact ways chaos regions form are not completely understood, in the case of Europa scientists have a few ideas. One possibility is fast-moving impactors that smash through the moon’s brittle crust. As a liquid layer lies immediately beneath the crust, the shards are more mobile and can refreeze in different configurations, creating a fractured terrain with young scars carved into the icy plains.

    Many chaos regions have small impact craters clustered nearby. In the case of Conamara Chaos, for example, a large 26 km-diameter crater named Pwyll lies 1000 km to the south, and a handful of smaller, 500 m-diameter craters are scattered throughout the region, likely formed by lumps of ice thrown up by the impact that created Pwyll.

    1
    This enhanced color image of the region surrounding the young impact crater Pwyll on Jupiter’s moon Europa was produced by combining low resolution color data with a higher resolution mosaic of images obtained on December 19, 1996 by the Solid State Imaging (CCD) system aboard NASA’s Galileo spacecraft. This region is on the trailing hemisphere of the satellite, centered at 11 degrees South and 276 degrees West, and is about 1240 kilometers across. North is toward the top of the image, and the sun illuminates the surface from the east.

    Another suggestion is that Europa harbours an intricate system of shallow subsurface lakes. Instead of an object slamming into the Jovian moon, a lake system could influence and stress the crust from below to cause the thin ice sheets to fracture and collapse.

    This patch of Europa’s crust takes on an iridescent appearance in this false-colour image, which strongly enhances subtle colour differences present in the scene. Areas of blue and white stand out distinctly from areas of rusty orange and bronze. This colouration is thought to be caused by material from Pwyll: when the crater formed it threw up a blanket of fine ice particles that settled over parts of Conamara Chaos, colouring parts of the landscape in dark blue (coarser particles of ice), light blue (smaller particles) and white (very fine particles). The bronze patches are regions of ice that have been stained by minerals from beneath the disrupted crust.

    Although astronomers have studied Europa intensively, the only way to confirm the structure and composition of the moon is to probe its shell and interior with a space probe. ESA’s JUpiter ICy moons Explorer (Juice) mission aims to do just that when it arrives in the Jovian system in 2030.

    ESA JUICE
    ESA/JUICE

    Alongside detailed studies of Jupiter itself, Juice will explore and characterise three of the gas giant’s potentially habitable icy moons: Ganymede, Europa and Callisto. The mission is in development, on track for launch in 2022.

    North is to the top of the picture and the Sun illuminates the surface from the right side of the frame. The image is centred at 9ºN / 274ºW, and covers an area of some 70 km by 30 km. The image combines data taken by Galileo’s Solid State Imaging system during three orbits through the Jovian system in 1996 and 1997.

    See the full article here.

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    The European Space Agency (ESA), established in 1975, is an intergovernmental organization dedicated to the exploration of space, currently with 19 member states. Headquartered in Paris, ESA has a staff of more than 2,000. ESA’s space flight program includes human spaceflight, mainly through the participation in the International Space Station program, the launch and operations of unmanned exploration missions to other planets and the Moon, Earth observation, science, telecommunication as well as maintaining a major spaceport, the Guiana Space Centre at Kourou, French Guiana, and designing launch vehicles. ESA science missions are based at ESTEC in Noordwijk, Netherlands, Earth Observation missions at ESRIN in Frascati, Italy, ESA Mission Control (ESOC) is in Darmstadt, Germany, the European Astronaut Centre (EAC) that trains astronauts for future missions is situated in Cologne, Germany, and the European Space Astronomy Centre is located in Villanueva de la Cañada, Spain.

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  • richardmitnick 8:03 pm on February 4, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From WIRED: “The White House Wants to Go to Europa” 

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    Wired

    02.04.15
    Marcus Woo

    1
    The blue and white areas on Europa’s surface are close to pure water ice. NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute

    Earlier this week the White House made public its budget requests for 2016. It’s a little bit of Washington kabuki—Congress always adjusts the budget one way or the other. But buried inside the $18.5 billion budget request for NASA was an interesting tidbit: $30 million for a mission to the Jovian moon Europa, every space nerd’s favorite target in the search for extraterrestrial life.

    In other words, if this new funding goes through, it’ll mean that NASA is finally, officially onboard with a mission to the ice-crusted world where alien monoliths took over in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010. In other other words: Let’s go to Europa! “This is a big deal,” says Casey Dreier, the director of advocacy at the Planetary Society, which has been lobbying for this mission for more than 15 years. “This budget basically fills in the missing piece that will enable this mission to go forward.” The new budget request also says that the White House plans to ask for even more money in the next few years, and because the mission is now an official project, says Dreier, civil servants can work on it and NASA can start making long-term contracts for further planning.

    So what would the mission look like? Europa’s icy shell gives it the smoothest surface of any world in the solar system. But shifting cracks and other evidence suggest that that below that frozen surface lies an ocean—a watery one. And where there’s water, life may follow. Researchers have wanted to get there for decades—the current best idea for how is a 15-year-old concept called the Europa Clipper. “What we’ve been looking at is a multiple flyby mission,” says Bob Pappalardo, the mission’s project scientist. Under the current plan, a spacecraft will orbit Jupiter, not Europa—but it’ll zip past the moon 45 times in three years—venturing as close as 16 miles to the surface every couple of weeks.

    Scientists are still hashing out what kinds of instruments will be onboard, so Pappalardo can’t say which exact ones will end up going to Europa. But one of the main goals will be to measure the moon’s magnetic field, which would tell scientists how salty the subsurface ocean is. Dissolved minerals (like salt) allow the ocean to conduct electricity—which means it’d have a magnetic field a sensor could read. Or more speculatively, in 2013 the Hubble Space Telescope spotted what looked like 125-mile high geysers spewing water from Europa’s south pole. Maybe a probe could actually fly through one and sample the water. Radar could reveal how thick the frozen crust is, and other instruments could measure the chemicals in Europa’s wispy atmosphere. High-resolution cameras will take pictures of the cracks that crisscross the surface, hoping to figure out whether it’s actually the case that the ice flexes and breaks because of that still-hypothetical ocean. And they’ll also scope out possible spots to send a future lander.

    That’s the real brass ring, of course—if you want to find aliens. “If someone comes up with a clever way to point to life with multiple flybys, that will be wonderful,” Pappalardo says. “But that will probably take going to the surface.” That’s why Earthbound experiments like the work at Lake Vostok in Antarctica are so interesting to planetary scientists—cracking through 2.5 miles of ice to get to a liquid lake below without contaminating it may turn out to be highly relevant expertise someday.

    When that’ll happen, though, is another question. The price tag for something Europa Clipper-like looks to be about $2 billion, so it’ll take a few more years of budgets to get it all together. A mission with a lander would be much more expensive. An orbiter might still be a possibility, but “it’s a riskier and more expensive approach than making many flybys,” Pappalardo says. It would take a year and a half after arriving at Jupiter just to get into Europa’s orbit, requiring lots more fuel and exposing the spacecraft to radiation that could fry its instruments.

    However the details turn out, a Europa mission could launch as soon as the mid-2020s, said David Radzanowski, NASA’s chief financial officer, in a press briefing on Monday. Which means it won’t actually get to Europa until around 2030. But if all goes as planned, those 15 years will fly right by.

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 10:04 pm on November 30, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    From SPACE.com: “o Europa! Mission to Jupiter’s Moon Gains Support in Congress” 

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    SPACE.com

    November 05, 2014
    Nola Taylor Redd

    Scientists who want to explore Jupiter’s ocean-harboring moon Europa have some allies in high places. Several influential congresspeople are among those calling for a mission to Europa, which is regarded by many scientists as the best place to search for life beyond Earth. “We don’t need to wait to go find life in another solar system,” Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, said in July. “It’s right here in our own backyard.”

    j
    Some members of Congress want NASA to explore Jupiter’s icy moon Europa, perhaps the solar system’s best bet to host alien life.
    Credit: NASA/JPL/Ted Stryk

    ‘Defining moment in our lifetime’

    Culberson spoke at “The Lure of Europa,” a public meeting organized in Washington, D.C., by nonprofit group The Planetary Society.

    His words came just one day after NASA scientist Kevin Hand stated at a public NASA forum that he thought humans would find life in the universe in the next two decades, and on the same day that NASA released its call for scientific instruments for a planned Europa mission.

    Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House of Representatives’ Science, Space and Technology Committee, kicked things off at “The Lure of Europa” by wishing the world could see how excited attendees were about the Jupiter moon. Some members of the audience remained standing, while others sat on the floor.

    “There is a general apparent interest in the subject of space in the American people,” Smith said.

    He went on to discuss the special interest people have in exoplanets, particularly Earth-like planets, with an even keener emphasis on finding Earth-like planets that might have indications of life.

    “Just the mere idea of the forms of those lives is enough to keep us exploring for several years,” Smith said.

    Culberson called the future discovery of extraterrestrial life “the defining moment in our lifetime.” “It will define our civilization,” he said.

    r
    Reddish bands on Europa indicate regions of ice mixed with hydrated salts, while the blue-white terrain is relatively pure water-ice.
    Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute
    View full size image

    Europa is a particularly good place to hunt for potential alien life, Culberson added. Scientists think that, beneath its icy crust, Europa contains three to four times more water than Earth does, and that its seafloor may be heated by geologic activity. Radiation from Jupiter helps produce some of the chemicals required for life on the moon’s surface.

    Recently, scientists discovered geysers in Europa’s southern hemisphere — a finding that could potentially allow for the exploration of the underground ocean without the need to pierce the icy crust.

    In 2013, the U.S. National Research Council’s Planetary Science Decadal Review issued its 10-year recommendation for planetary exploration for NASA and the National Science Foundation. The report ranked an exploration of Europa as the highest-priority mission. Past budget cuts had endangered funding for studying the Jovian moon — a problem that the representatives hope to rectify in the future.

    “It’s our job to make sure there’s enough funding to fund these exciting missions,” Culberson said, referring to his role as a member of the House Committee on Appropriations.

    Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who is also on the House Committee on Appropriations, spoke at the “Lure of Europa” event as well.

    “It’s clearly a priority for us, and will continue to be a priority for us,” he said, referring to the long-standing interest in Jupiter’s icy moon.

    r
    Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, has a passion for exploring Europa.
    Credit: Nola Taylor Redd

    Schiff’s district is home to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the lead NASA center for building and operating robotic planetary explorers, including the Mars rover Curiosity.

    NASA Mars Curiosity Rover
    Curiosity

    Congress allocated NASA $155 million over the last two years to study a possible mission to Europa, and the White House allocated $15 million toward this end in its 2015 federal budget request. NASA officials say they hope to launch a roughly $1 billion Europa mission in the mid-2020s or so.

    Supporting the mission

    NASA’s current plans consist of launching a probe that will do multiple flybys, as there is not yet enough data to select a safe landing site on the moon. This initial mission could help pave the way to put a probe down on Europa someday, NASA officials say.

    “We have a lot more challenges on the way to Europa, both here and in space,” Schiff warned.

    But overcoming those challenges could result in exciting discoveries, he added.

    “I don’t know what we’ll find there, but I know it will be amazing,” Schiff said of Europa.

    Culberson added that the taxpayers who fund the exploration of Europa will play a role in the results — a responsibility that will be especially important if scientists find life on Europa.

    “[Imagine if] we had some role, some part to play in finding life on another world and changing mankind for the better,” Culberson said. “What better legacy could we possibly leave?”

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 6:46 pm on September 8, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , Europa, , , Subduction   

    From SPACE.com: “Jupiter’s Moon Europa May Have Plate Tectonics Just Like Earth” 

    space-dot-com logo

    SPACE.com

    September 08, 2014
    Mike Wall

    Jupiter’s icy moon Europa, regarded as perhaps the solar system’s best bet to host alien life, keeps getting more and more interesting.

    eur
    Scientists have found evidence of an active plate tectonics system within the ice shell of Jupiter’s moon Europa. Earth has long been thought to be the only solar system body with plate tectonics.
    Credit: NASA/JPL/Ted Stry

    Big slabs of ice are sliding over and under each other within Europa’s ice shell, a new study suggests. The Jovian satellite may thus be the only solar system body besides Earth to possess a system of plate tectonics.

    “From a purely science or geological perspective, this is incredible,” study lead author Simon Kattenhorn of the University of Idaho told Space.com. “Earth may not be alone. There may be another body out there that has plate tectonics. And not only that, it’s ice!” [Photos: Europa, Mysterious Icy Moon of Jupiter]

    plates
    Artist’s concept of the subduction process thought to be occurring on Jupiter’s moon Europa, showing how a cold outer portion of Europa’s ice shell moved into the warmer shell interior and was ultimately absorbed. A “subsumption band” was created at the surface in the overriding plate, alongside which cryolavas may have erupted.
    Credit: Noah Kroese, I.NK

    The new results come less than a year after plumes of water vapor were spotted erupting from Europa’s south polar region. That find excited astrobiologists a great deal, because it suggested that a robotic probe may be able to sample the moon’s subsurface ocean of liquid water at a distance, without even touching down.

    “There have been a lot of recent exciting discoveries [about Europa],” Kattenhorn said. “All taken together, as NASA starts thinking about future missions, I’m hoping it will be pretty clear: This [Europa] is the obvious choice.”

    Missing puzzle pieces

    Kattenhorn and co-author Louise Prokter, of Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, studied photos of Europa taken by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft, which orbited Jupiter from 1995 until 2003.

    gal
    NASA/Galileo

    The researchers used the images to reconstruct the recent geological history of a 52,000-square-mile (134,000 square kilometers) swath of Europa — an area about the size of the state of Alabama. They noticed that the region changed over time, with some surface features becoming mismatched relative to the architecture captured in earlier images.

    plate
    False-color image of Europa’s trailing northern hemisphere, where subduction zones indicative of a system of plate tectonics are thought to exist.
    Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

    “It was very clear that you could reconstruct the original picture simply by moving plates around,” Kattenhorn said, comparing the duo’s approach to assembling a jigsaw puzzle.

    Further, there was a gap in this reconstructed picture, as if a large puzzle piece had fallen off the table. In a sense, that’s probably what did happen, Kattenhorn said.

    “In this case, the big chunk had actually moved down underneath the adjacent plate and was forever lost, recycled into the interior” of Europa’s ice shell, he said.

    That chunk was indeed big, about the size of the state of Massachusetts, Kattenhorn added.

    Plate tectonics

    Kattenhorn and Prokter think this phenomenon of one plate sliding under another, which is known as subduction, is the most likely explanation for the disappearing puzzle piece. They cite several lines of supporting evidence, including potential “cryolavas” of water ice near the plate boundary. (On Earth, volcanism is common along subduction zones.)

    If the scientists’ interpretation — laid out in a study published online today (Sept. 7) in the journal Nature Geoscience— is correct, planetary science textbooks will have to be rewritten.

    “Plate tectonics has been thought to be unique to our world,” Michelle Selvans, of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, wrote in an accompanying News and Views piece in the same issue of Nature Geoscience.

    “Subduction zones, convergent boundaries where one tectonic plate slides under another and is recycled into the Earth’s mantle, are unique to plate tectonic systems,” Selvans wrote. “Although Mercury, Venus and Marsshow clear signs of tectonic activity, such as systems of thrust faults and rift valleys, none of these rocky planets have been convincingly shown to have a system of moving tectonic plates, either today or in the past.”

    An active system of plate tectonics could also explain two puzzling facts about Europa, Kattenhorn said: 1) why its surface is so young (less than 90 million years, as estimated by meteorite-impact rates), and 2) how the moon accommodates the creation of new ice on its shell, which has been observed previously. (Europa isn’t getting any bigger, so some process must be balancing out the production of new material.)

    “From my perspective, that’s pretty exciting, that we’ve addressed these two really important questions about Europa,” Kattenhorn said.

    He and Prokter said Europa likely has a system of cold, brittle plates moving around above convecting warmer ice. The mechanisms behind Europan plate tectonics are unclear at the moment, Kattenhorn said, stressing the need for modeling work. But tidal heating generated by the tug of Jupiter’s immense gravity, the same phenomenon that keeps Europa’s interior ocean from freezing up, may be one of the ultimate drivers, he added.

    zone
    Close-up view of a possible zone of plate spreading on Europa, showing internal striations related to spreading and bilateral symmetry about a central axis. Older geological features can be matched perfectly to either side of the spreading zone. (This image focuses on a different region of Europa than the one analyzed for the Nature Geoscience paper published on Sept. 7, 2014.)
    Credit: NASA/JPL

    Implications for life?

    info
    Scientists are eager to learn if Europa’s huge subsurface ocean harbors alien life. See how Jupiter’s icy moon Europa works in this SPACE.com infographic.
    Credit: by Karl Tate, Infographics Artist

    Some scientists think plate tectonics were essential to the rise of life on Earth. For example, the idea goes, the movement of plates replenishes nutrients and helps stabilize the planet’s climate by recycling carbon.

    So it’s natural to wonder if Europan plate tectonics may make the icy moon more habitable for simple lifeforms, Selvans wrote.

    “Perhaps Europa and Earth are even more uniquely similar: It is tempting to note the correlation between the existence of both life and plate tectonics on Earth and wonder if the latter might not be a requirement of the former,” she wrote.

    Europa’s ice shell is thought to be 12 to 19 miles (20 to 30 kilometers) thick, and subducting plates likely dive down only a mile so, Kattenhorn said. Subduction, therefore, probably doesn’t take any nutrients or other complex molecules from the surface down into the ocean immediately.

    But this could happen indirectly and over longer periods of time via convection, he added.

    “As with all convection, what goes up must go down as well,” Kattenhorn said. “One can imagine that some of that material may ultimately, just by virtue of being in a convective system, work its way downward. Whether that ultimately comes into contact with the ocean is an important question.”

    And there may be pockets of liquid water within the ice shell relatively close to the surface, perhaps close enough to be reached by a subducting Europan plate, he added.

    “People who are thinking about habitable environments — certainly not my field of expertise — that would probably be something very interesting for them to think about,” Kattenhorn said.

    See the full article here.

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