Europa lander mission takes another step toward reality

Proposal looks at how to prevent probe’s contamination of the Jovian moon

icy surface of Europa

ONTO THE ICE  This image from the Galileo spacecraft shows the icy surface of Europa. The Jovian moon is a target for a potential lander mission that will look for signs of life there.


BOSTON — For the first time since the Viking missions to Mars in the 1970s, NASA is making the search for evidence of life on another world the primary science goal of a space mission. The target world is Jupiter’s moon Europa, considered possibly habitable because of its subsurface ocean.

The proposed mission, which could be operational in the next two decades, calls for a lander with room for roughly 43 kilograms of science instruments. They include a robotic arm to scoop samples and others to analyze the chemistry of the Jovian moon’s icy surface (SN: 5/17/14, p. 20). “It’s the first time in human history that we have the ability to design instruments to detect life within our own solar system’s backyard in the next 20 years,” astrobiologist and planetary scientist Kevin Hand said February 17 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Hand’s team submitted a 264-page report describing the potential mission to NASA on February 8. The report is now open for review by the scientific community.

A major concern is taking precautions to prevent contamination of Europa by microbes from Earth. “These are important for protecting Europa for Europans,” said Hand, who works out of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. His team proposes baking the spacecraft to kill as many microorganisms clinging to the exterior of the lander as possible.

Decontamination precautions are important not only for protecting the life that’s on the world being explored, notes biologist Norine Noonan of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. They are also important for the science goals of the potential mission. “You don’t want to send a $2 billion spacecraft somewhere to discover E. coli,” Noonan says.

Ashley Yeager is the associate news editor at Science News. She has worked at The Scientist, the Simons Foundation, Duke University and the W.M. Keck Observatory, and was the web producer for Science News from 2013 to 2015. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and a master’s degree in science writing from MIT.

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