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America spends billions in search of extraterrestrial life

NASA planned to send to Europe, the smallest Galilean satellite of Jupiter, the mission of Europa Clipper. This scientific program promises to become one of the most ambitious and expensive for the US space agency. It is Europa Clipper should find out if there is life in the under-ice of Europe. If NASA directly or indirectly discovers biological organisms in the satellite of Jupiter, mankind will face a serious challenge.

The existence of liquid subglacial oceans scientists suspects in many celestial bodies of the solar system, in particular – on satellites of Jupiter Europe, Callisto, and Ganymede, on the moons of Saturn – Enceladus and Titan, as well as on other satellites – for example, Mimase. All of these moons are covered with a layer of ice (water or hydrocarbon), under which there can be oceans. The conditions in such water bodies may be similar to the Antarctic Lake Vostok, but unlike the terrestrial reservoir, the liquid on satellites can exist mainly due to warming tides.

Ice Europe

In 1997, Europe explored the American station Galileo, which made 11 spans near the Jovian moon. The mission showed that under the icy crust of the satellite, there may be a global subglacial ocean or several lakes. In the first case of salt water in the bowels of the moon can be twice as much as in the World Ocean on Earth. Moreover, taking into account the tidal energy due to the gravitational interaction of Jupiter and Europe showed that the local sections of the subsurface ocean of the latter can be heated to comfortable temperatures even for terrestrial organisms. However, scientists do not exclude that instead of liquid water in the depths of Europe is viscous ice.

Cryovolcanism in Europe was first discovered in December 2012 by the Hubble Space Telescope. In May 2018, the use of modern modeling techniques, inaccessible 20 years ago, confirmed the existence of a water discharge, which in 1997 first discovered the magnetometer Galileo from a distance of about 200 kilometers from the surface of Europe.
Hubble Geysers
Image: NASA / ESA / L. Roth / SWRI / University of Cologne

Of particular interest is the study of Connemara chaos – a portion of the satellite’s surface formed by young blocks of ice. The dynamics of such structures in Europe resembles the tectonics of the Earth. In fact, scientists state the presence of subduction zones on the surface of Europe, in which some tectonic plates (ice beds) come under others, and outside the mantle leaves (in the case of the icy moon – water). Thus, the icy satellite of Jupiter turns out to be the third celestial body inside the orbit of Neptune (after Mercury and Earth), which has active tectonics.

First flew

It is expected that the Europa Clipper, the launch weight of which is estimated at six tons (along with fuel), will revolve around Jupiter for three years. During this time the station will approach 45 times to Europe at a distance of 25 to 2.7 thousand kilometers. Scientists hope that Europa Clipper, flying over the geysers of Europe, will take samples and determine the composition of the substance that came from its bowels.

The scientific instruments of the orbital station include cameras and spectrometers that allow to obtain high-resolution images of the surface of Europe and to determine its structure and composition – in particular, there is a radar on board the Europa Clipper that will determine the thickness of the ice cover of the satellite and search for subglacial lakes and magnetometers, which investigate the magnetic field of the satellite, as well as determine the salinity and depth of its ocean. A tool is also foreseen for analyzing the thermal radiation of Europe, which will help to detect water in the rarefied atmosphere of the satellite.

The total budget of the mission (without the cost of the launch vehicle) is estimated at a minimum of two billion dollars. The station is supposed to be sent into space with the help of heavy rockets (Atlas 5 or Delta 4 Heavy) or superheavy carriers – Falcon Heavy, which by the time of launch will probably have time to pass certification, or, more preferably, developed SLS (Space Launch System). In the latter case, Europa Clipper will almost 2.5 times faster (for 2.7 years) reach Europe than Atlas 5, but the cost of launch will increase five to ten times – to a billion dollars.

The second track

Also, the US Congress (within the framework of the Europa Clipper mission) allocated funding for the creation of the Europa Lander probe, which will descend to the surface of Europe and drill its ice crust to a depth of 10 centimeters. The launch of a descent probe, which weighs (together with fuel) is estimated at 10 tons, can become one of the most ambitious projects of NASA. Europa Lander should receive only 33 kilograms of scientific equipment, its working life is estimated at 20 terrestrial days.

During this time, the descent probe will spend 1600 watts of energy and transmit to the Earth only 600 megabytes of data. The requirements for the mission are explained by the harsh conditions in Europe: the surface temperature of the satellite, which is within the radiation belt of Jupiter (with a dose of ionizing radiation of 5.4 sievert – hundreds of thousands of times greater than the terrestrial), varies from minus 210 (at poles) to minus 160 at the equator) degrees Celsius.

Connemara chaos
Image: NASA / JPL / University of Arizona

The initial cost of the Europa Lander was estimated at four billion dollars (in addition to two billion on the Europa Clipper), but formally this amount was reduced – in particular, by simplifying the communication system that will transfer data directly from the lander to the Earth, and not through the orbital station , as well as placing more simple scientific tools that are designed to detect biological signals of the present and past life, rather than directly living organisms. However, in the long term, the costs of the descending probe can grow – the reason for this is the uniqueness of the equipment that the descent probe should receive.

Under attack

The Europa Clipper mission has several problems. First of all, the launch dates and launch vehicle are not defined. Although officially launched in June 2022, it can move to July 2023, August 2024 or even September 2025 (the most advantageous from the position of the celestial mechanics, the launch windows are located at intervals of 13 months apart). This problem is associated with regular transfers of the first SLS start.

Image: NASA / JPL-Caltech
Image: NASA / JPL-Caltech

There are fears that even if the missile first flies before June 2022, then the time for subsequent maintenance of its mobile launcher will not be enough to make it to the Europa Clipper launch by June 2022, and the transfer of the mission to July 2023th, in turn, coincides in time with the first manned launch of the lunar-Martian ship Orion. In this case, NASA needs to speed up the work on the first SLS mission, get funding for a second mobile launcher (about $ 400 million) or move astronauts to the moon. While in the Congress and NASA are optimistic about the first option.

Other problems are related to the configuration and financing of the mission to Europe. Currently, the most preferable option is the separate launch of Europa Clipper (in 2022) and Europa Lander (2024-m), although the option of their simultaneous sending is not excluded. Despite the fact that American planetologists and engineers have sufficient experience to complete the creation of an orbital station within three to four years (until June 2022), it is possible to complete such works in time only if stable financing is available.

This moment is rather a political, and not a scientific issue, and therefore difficult to predict. The program received expanded funding in the 2019th financial year; if in the next few years the mission will receive the same support, the Europa Clipper and Europa Lander will be ready on time (by 2022 and 2024 respectively). However, there are risks associated with a possible change in the administration of the US President in 2021. If by this time almost ready Europa Clipper is unlikely to be canceled, then Europa Lander can be under attack.

Compromise

The discovery of life in Europe, if it happens, together with its limited scope for research, will create a serious challenge for humanity. First, it will raise many questions before evolutionary biology. Did life on the Earth, regardless of life in Europe, or the organisms on the celestial bodies, have a common relative? If the latter is true, then what is its origin – where did it get to the solar system? In any case, biologists will have too many questions to associate the appearance of life on Earth with the now popular hypothesis of the RNA world.

Secondly, in the case of the discovery of life in the depths of Europe, the planning of new missions for other ice moons, especially Enceladus, will surely begin, in which not only the US but also the PRC, the EU countries, and Japan will be interested, probably India. Whether such planning will result in competition between China and the United States or turn into cooperation is not important, since in both cases it will lead to an intensification of the development of launch vehicles, in particular, the rockets of the superheavy class, and also probably spaceships with nuclear power installation. Although it is precisely about Enceladus that now, after the mission of Cassini, it is known more than about Europe, to fly to it, based on modern possibilities, is closer and therefore cheaper.

Thirdly, the discovery of life in Europe is likely to provoke a surge of interest in exploring the depths of the World Ocean and the depths of Antarctica, conditions in which at least partially resemble those in the ice companions of gas giants. Fourth, finally, the creation of habitable stations on the Moon and Mars is likely to begin to be taken for granted, since the development of these celestial bodies located relatively near the Earth is incomparably easier than penetrating into the depths of Europe or Enceladus.

NASA promises to find traces of extraterrestrial life until 2025. Along with sending a person to the Moon and Mars, the agency considers this one of its main tasks.

What do you think?

Hannah Veteran

Written by Hannah

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