NASA selected the instruments for its Europa mission

Artistic concept of the space probe that will study Europa and its trajectory in the Jupiter's system (Image NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Artistic concept of the space probe that will study Europa and its trajectory in the Jupiter’s system (Image NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA announced the nine instruments selected for the space probe that will explore Europa, a large Jupiter’s moon. The interest in a mission of this type has grown over the years, since the Galileo space probe found evidence of the existence of Europa’s subsurface ocean. The new mission will try to determine whether that ocean contains life forms.

During the presentation, the mission has been indicated as Europa Clipper but the final name will be announced later. The instruments selected for the space probe are:

Plasma Instrument for Magnetic Sounding (PIMS). It works together with a magnetometer and is the key to determine the thickness of Europa’s icy crust, the depth of its ocean and its salinity by correcting the magnetic induction signal for plasma currents around Europa.

Interior Characterization of Europa using Magnetometry (ICEMAG). This magnetometer will measure the magnetic field close to Europa and, together with the PIMS instrument, infer its ocean’s position, depth and salinity.

Mapping Imaging Spectrometer for Europa (MISE). This spectrometer probe the composition of Europa, identifying and mapping the distribution of organic compounds, salts, and other materials to determine the habitability ocean of Europa.

Europa Imaging System (EIS). It’s a system of cameras that will map most of Europa providing high resolution images.

Radar for Europa Assessment and Sounding: Ocean to Near-surface (REASON). This radar is designed to determine the characteristics of Europa’s icy crust detecting its hidden structure.

Europa Thermal Emission Imaging System (E-THEMIS). This heat detector will provide a thermal mapping of Europa with high spatial risoluzioen to identify active areas such as potential volcanic vents that eject water plumes into space.

MAss SPectrometer for Planetary EXploration/Europa (MASPEX). This instrument will determine the composition of Europa’s surface and underground ocean measuring its extremely tenuous atmosphere and any material ejected into space from the surface.

Ultraviolet Spectrograph/Europa (UVS). This spectrograph will adopt the same technique used for the Hubble Space Telescope to detect the possible presence of water plumes that erupt from Europa’s surface. It can detect small plumes and will supply important data on this moon’s atmosphere composition and dynamics.

SUrface Dust Mass Analyzer (SUDA). This instrument will analyze the composition of small solid particles ejected from Europa, providing the chance to directly collect samples of the surface and of potential plumes during flybys.

Another instrument, the SPace Environmental Investigation and Composition near the Europan surface (SPECIES), was selected for further development. It combines a neutral mass spectrometer and a gas chromatograph and will be developed for further mission options.

To accomplish its mission, the spacecraft will perform at least 45 flybys at altitudes between 25 and 2,700 km (16 to 1,700 miles). The ultimate goal is to verify whether underground ocean hosts life forms but there’s no specific instrument because there’s no technology that can detect directly life forms.

There’s not even a clear definition of a life form so the instruments will carrie out a series of surveys, in particular of Europa’s underground ocean and scientists will use them to make their assessments. The discoveries made over the years, including those at the end of 2013, give hope that there’s life but it’s impossible to say what will be actually found.

The target for the spacecraft launch is 2022 for a primary mission that will last two and a half years. In the meantime, many things might happen and there might be changes. It’s a very interesting mission because this time one of the main goals is the search for alien life.

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