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posted by martyb on Tuesday July 24 2018, @06:07AM   Printer-friendly
from the how'd-they-get-there? dept.

Europa Lander May Not Have to Dig Deep to Find Signs of Life

If signs of life exist on Jupiter's icy moon Europa, they might not be as hard to find as scientists had thought, a new study reports. [...] NASA aims to hunt for such samples in the not-too-distant future. The agency is developing a flyby mission called Europa Clipper, which is scheduled to launch in the early 2020s. Clipper will study Europa up close during dozens of flybys, some of which might be able to zoom through the moon's suspected water-vapor plumes. And NASA is also working on a possible post-Clipper lander mission that would search for evidence of life at or near the Europan surface.

It's unclear, however, just how deep a Europa lander would need to dig to have a chance of finding anything. That's because Europa orbits within Jupiter's radiation belts and is bombarded by fast-moving charged particles, which can turn amino acids and other possible biosignatures into mush.

That's where the new study comes in. NASA scientist Tom Nordheim and his colleagues modeled Europa's radiation environment in detail, laying out just how bad things get from place to place. They then combined these results with data from laboratory experiments documenting how quickly various radiation doses carve up amino acids (a stand-in here for complex biomolecules in general).

The researchers found significant variation, with some Europan locales (equatorial regions) getting about 10 times the radiation pounding of others (middle and high latitudes). At the most benign spots, the team determined, a lander would likely have to dig just 0.4 inches (1 centimeter) or so into the ice to find recognizable amino acids. In the high-blast zones, the target depth would be on the order of 4 to 8 inches (10 to 20 cm). (This is not to imply that potential Europan organisms would still be alive at such depths, however; doses there are high enough to cook even the hardiest Earth microbes, study team members said.)

Also at Motherboard and Gizmodo.

Preservation of potential biosignatures in the shallow subsurface of Europa (DOI: 10.1038/s41550-018-0499-8) (DX)

Biosignature hide and seek (DOI: 10.1038/s41550-018-0542-9) (DX)

Related Stories

Science Instruments Selected for NASA's Europa Mission 8 comments

Nine science instruments were selected to fly on the NASA mission to Jupiter's moon Europa. The instruments will study the moon from its atmosphere to its subsurface. The instruments are (as copied from the NASA press release):

  • 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.

Original Submission

NASA Releases Europa Lander Study 2016 Report 3 comments

A NASA report on the potential for future exploration of the Jovian moon Europa has been published:

A report on the potential science value of a lander on the surface of Jupiter's icy moon Europa has been delivered to NASA, and the agency is now engaging the broader science community to open a discussion about its findings.

[...] The report lists three science goals for the mission. The primary goal is to search for evidence of life on Europa. The other goals are to assess the habitability of Europa by directly analyzing material from the surface, and to characterize the surface and subsurface to support future robotic exploration of Europa and its ocean. The report also describes some of the notional instruments that could be expected to perform measurements in support of these goals.

Scientists agree that the evidence is quite strong that Europa, which is slightly smaller than Earth's moon, has a global saltwater ocean beneath its icy crust. This ocean has at least twice as much water as Earth's oceans. While recent discoveries have shown that many bodies in the solar system either have subsurface oceans now, or may have in the past, Europa is one of only two places where the ocean is understood to be in contact with a rocky seafloor (the other being Saturn's moon Enceladus). This rare circumstance makes Europa one of the highest priority targets in the search for present-day life beyond Earth.

Executive summary:

The Europa Lander Science Definition Team Report presents the integrated results of an intensive science and engineering team effort to develop and optimize a mission concept that would follow the Europa Multiple Flyby Mission and conduct the first in situ search for evidence of life on another world since the Viking spacecraft on Mars in the 1970s. The Europa Lander mission would be a pathfinder for characterizing the biological potential of Europa's ocean through direct study of any chemical, geological, and possibly biological, signatures as expressed on, and just below, the surface of Europa. The search for signs of life on Europa's surface requires an analytical payload that performs quantitative organic compositional, microscopic, and spectroscopic analysis on five samples acquired from at least 10 cm beneath the surface, with supporting context imaging observations. This mission would significantly advance our understanding of Europa as an ocean world, even in the absence of any definitive signs of life, and would provide the foundation for the future robotic exploration of Europa.

Europa Lander Study 2016 Report (264 pages) and older resources.

Original Submission

Could a Dedicated Mission to Enceladus Detect Microbial Life There? 24 comments

Saturn's icy moon Enceladus is best known for its numerous geysers ejecting plumes of water and ice. These eruptive fountains perplex researchers searching for signs of microbial life beyond Earth. A dedicated spacecraft designed to study the plume-like features spewing from Enceladus could definitely tell us whether or not they contain alien microorganisms.

"We need a spacecraft to travel to Enceladus, fly through a geyser plume, and analyze the water that is immediately accessible," Geoffrey Marcy, a retired professor of astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley, told

Marcy is a renowned exoplanet researcher who discovered many extrasolar worlds. He was one of the co-investigators of NASA's Kepler planet-hunting mission that detected more than 4,000 exoworlds.
"The remarkable aspect of the search for microbes in the water spurting from geysers is that the spacecraft only needs to fly through the plume, well above the surface of Enceladus. No lander is needed—just a succession of flybys through the plumes as it orbits Enceladus," Marcy said.

He noted that such spacecraft should be fitted with a mass spectrometer to detect organic compounds that could be signs of microbial life. The spectrometer will look for amino acids and the structure of any organic molecules, especially fatty acids such as those composing cell membranes. It could also measure the relative amounts of isotopes of carbon (12 and 14) to detect non-natural anomalies due to biological processes.

Moreover, the mission to Enceladus would measure the properties of the water such as pH, oxidation and temperature, therefore assessing its suitability for organic life.

Marcy believes assembling "a brilliant team of billionaires" is the key to making such a mission possible. Lucky for him the monolith said nothing about Enceladus.

Original Submission

Plate Tectonics on Europa and Subsurface Oceans in the Outer Solar System 1 comment

Plate tectonics on Jupiter's moon Europa could make finding life there more likely:

Earthquakes could be fueling life on Europa, one of Jupiter's moons. Scientists have shown that huge chunks of the moon's ice crust could be sinking others, infusing its underground ocean with chemical food. [...] Geophysicists from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, have shown that tectonic activity is also feasible within Europa's ice shell. They used a computer simulation to map subduction—where one giant slab of ice is forced under another.

The gravitational pull of moons could extend the unfrozen lifetime of subsurface oceans on some objects, such as Pluto and Charon:

Heat generated by the gravitational pull of moons formed from massive collisions could extend the lifetimes of liquid water oceans beneath the surface of large icy worlds in our outer solar system, according to new NASA research. This greatly expands the number of locations where extraterrestrial life might be found, since liquid water is necessary to support known forms of life and astronomers estimate there are dozens of these worlds.

"These objects need to be considered as potential reservoirs of water and life," said Prabal Saxena of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, lead author of the research published in Icarus [DOI: 10.1016/j.icarus.2017.11.023] [DX] November 24. "If our study is correct, we now may have more places in our solar system that possess some of the critical elements for extraterrestrial life."

List of largest lakes and seas in the Solar System.

Also at Brown University (EurekAlert).

Porosity and salt content determine if subduction can occur in Europa's ice shell (open, DOI: 10.1002/2017JE005370) (DX)

Original Submission

Europa Landers Could be in Danger of Sinking Into a Porous Surface 16 comments

Future Europa landers may be in danger of sinking into a surface less dense than freshly fallen snow:

Space scientists have every reason to be fascinated with Jupiter's moon Europa, and, in 2017, NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) announced they are planning a joint mission to land there. As the video above explains, this little moon is thought to have a liquid ocean submerged beneath an icy crust. Scientists believe it could host extraterrestrial life. But Europa's surface is much more alien than any we've ever visited. With its extremely thin atmosphere, low gravity – and a surface temperature of some -350 degrees F. (–176 °C.) – Europa might not be kind to a landing spacecraft. The moon's surface might be unexpectedly hard. Or – as evidenced by a study from the Planetary Science Institute announced on January 24, 2018 – Europa's surface might be so porous that any craft trying to land would simply sink.

The study – published in the peer-reviewed journal Icarus – comes from scientist Robert Nelson. If you're a student of space history, its results might sound familiar. Nelson pointed out in his statement:

Of course, before the landing of the Luna 2 robotic spacecraft in 1959, there was concern that the moon might be covered in low density dust into which any future astronauts might sink.

Now Europa is the source of a similar scariness, with Nelson's study showing that Europa's surface could be as much as 95 percent porous.

Laboratory simulations of planetary surfaces: Understanding regolith physical properties from remote photopolarimetric observations (DOI: 10.1016/j.icarus.2017.11.021) (DX)

Original Submission

NASA Finds Evidence of Water Plume on Europa 2 comments

While water plumes have been imaged on Saturn's icy moon Enceladus by the Cassini spacecraft, evidence for plumes on Jupiter's moon Europa has been scarce. But a new analysis found that a magnetometer aboard the Galileo spacecraft recorded signs of a plume in 1997, years before the Cassini spacecraft encountered plumes:

Scientists have new evidence that there are plumes of water erupting from the surface of Jupiter's icy moon Europa — plumes that could, maybe, possibly contain signs of life. The evidence comes from data collected by the now-defunct Galileo spacecraft. Although the data has been available since it was collected in 1997, it's only now that an analysis confirms the existence of water plumes.

For more than two decades, scientists have been convinced Europa has a liquid water ocean sloshing around beneath its icy outer crust. In the past six years, two teams of researchers using the Hubble Space Telescope reported the possible existence of plumes. But as powerful as Hubble is, seeing something as small as a plume on a moon more than 380-million miles away is difficult. "We're looking for effects that are relatively small, and are pushing the spatial resolution of the telescope," says astrophysicist Susana Deutsua of the Space Telescope Science Institute.

Congressman John Culberson, known for his support for the Europa Clipper mission, broke the research embargo in a recent hearing on NASA's budget.

Also at Ars Technica and The Verge.

Evidence of a plume on Europa from Galileo magnetic and plasma wave signatures (open, DOI: 10.1038/s41550-018-0450-z) (DX)

Original Submission

Complex Organic Molecules Found on Enceladus 4 comments

Saturn moon a step closer to hosting life

Scientists have found complex carbon-based molecules in the waters of Saturn's moon Enceladus.

Compounds like this have only previously been found on Earth, and in some meteorites. They are thought to have formed in reactions between water and warm rock at the base of the moon's subsurface ocean.

Though not a sign of life, their presence suggests Enceladus could play host to living organisms. The discovery came from data gathered by the Cassini spacecraft.

Also at SwRI, ScienceAlert,, National Geographic, Popular Mechanics, and The Guardian.

Macromolecular organic compounds from the depths of Enceladus (DOI: 10.1038/s41586-018-0246-4) (DX)

Related: Minerals In Plumes of Enceladus Indicate Hydrothermal Activity
Hydrogen Emitted by Enceladus, More Evidence of Plumes at Europa
Could a Dedicated Mission to Enceladus Detect Microbial Life There?
How the Cassini Mission Led a 'Paradigm Shift' in Search for Alien Life
Cassini Spacecraft Post-Mortem
Porous Core Could be Keeping Enceladus Warm
Yuri Milner Considering Privately Funded Mission to Enceladus
Organic Molecules Found on Ceres
NASA Finds Evidence of Water Plume on Europa
Organic Matter Found on Mars
Study Finds Evidence of More Organic Material on Ceres

Original Submission

Ice Spikes Could Complicate Europa Landings 11 comments

Fields of five-story-high ice blades could complicate landing on Jupiter moon

Probes have shown that Europa's ice-bound surface is riven with fractures and ridges, and new work published today in Nature Geosciences suggests any robotic lander could face a nasty surprise [DOI: 10.1038/s41561-018-0235-0] [DX], in the form of vast fields of ice spikes, each standing as tall as a semitruck is long.

Such spikes are created on Earth in the frigid tropical peaks of the Andes Mountains, where they are called "pentinentes,"[sic] for their resemblance to devout white-clad monks. [...] Pentinentes[sic] have already been seen on Pluto. And by calculating other competing erosional processes on Europa, such as impacts and charged particle bombardment, the new work suggests the vaporization of ice would be dominant in its equatorial belt, forming pentitentes[sic] 15 meters tall spaced only 7 meters apart. Such formations could explain, the authors add, why radar observations of the planet dip in energy at its equator, the pentinentes[sic] scattering the response. But the ultimate proof of whether Europa's belly will be off limits to landing will come when the Clipper arrives in the mid-2020s.

[Update: It's penitentes. Ed.]

First it was slush. Now it's spikes. Attempt no landing there.


Also at Science News and The Verge.

NASA Releases Europa Lander Study 2016 Report
Amino Acids Could Exist Just Centimeters Under Europa's Surface

Original Submission

Europa Clipper Mission Confirmed 9 comments

Mission to Jupiter's Icy Moon Confirmed

An icy ocean world in our solar system that could tell us more about the potential for life on other worlds is coming into focus with confirmation of the Europa Clipper mission's next phase. The decision allows the mission to progress to completion of final design, followed by the construction and testing of the entire spacecraft and science payload.

[...] The mission will conduct an in-depth exploration of Jupiter's moon Europa and investigate whether the icy moon could harbor conditions suitable for life, honing our insights into astrobiology. To develop this mission in the most cost-effective fashion, NASA is targeting to have the Europa Clipper spacecraft complete and ready for launch as early as 2023. The agency baseline commitment, however, supports a launch readiness date by 2025.

Also at Ars Technica, The Register, CNN, and CNET.

Related: Amino Acids Could Exist Just Centimeters Under Europa's Surface
Impact of the Midterm Elections May be Felt at NASA
White House Budget Request Would Move Launches from SLS to Commercial Providers

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  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 24 2018, @07:03AM (4 children)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 24 2018, @07:03AM (#711618)

    Does anyone else think it is a bit spooky that Arthur C. Clarke wrote about life existing on Europa, years ago ?

    I've suspected Clarke was either a time traveler or an extraterrestrial, for years. Of course the preceding sounds absurd,
    but then sending voice signals down a cable which carries pulses of light would have sounded absurd too, a short time ago.

    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 24 2018, @07:45AM

      by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 24 2018, @07:45AM (#711624)

      He saw clearly, as though through the eyes of a child.

    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 24 2018, @08:26AM

      by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 24 2018, @08:26AM (#711631)

      uhm... it's the one place in the solar system (other than Earth) where we know liquid water is likely to exist (and it was the most likely place he knew of as well). there's nothing spooky about his use of Europa.

    • (Score: 2) by srobert on Tuesday July 24 2018, @08:19PM

      by srobert (4803) on Tuesday July 24 2018, @08:19PM (#711884)

      It was the first thing I thought of. Sometimes I think certain science fiction authors like Arthur C. Clarke, or Jules Verne, knew things that they should not have known.

    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday July 25 2018, @05:32PM

      by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday July 25 2018, @05:32PM (#712500)

      No, guys. ACC knew of the ocean underneath Europan ice in the 1980s when he wrote 2010 because there had been a paper in 1980 or even earlier that speculated about it. I have the scanned jpegs of the paper lost among various files, but that was it.

  • (Score: 2) by FatPhil on Tuesday July 24 2018, @09:33AM (3 children)

    by FatPhil (863) <reversethis-{if.fdsa} {ta} {tnelyos-cp}> on Tuesday July 24 2018, @09:33AM (#711647) Homepage
    If "fast-moving charged particles, which can turn amino acids and other possible biosignatures into mush.", then the chances are they'll be finding signs of death rather than "signs of life", and Ochkam dictates that we shouldn't presume they were ever anything alive.

    Some amino acids are terribly simple compounds, to presume the existence of anything beyond what you actually do find would be very bad science indeed, IMHO.
    Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people; the smallest discuss themselves
    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 24 2018, @02:40PM (2 children)

      by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 24 2018, @02:40PM (#711733)

      This is a computer model for estimating the degradation of organic substances by radiation. The quoted text says the modeled amino acids are "a stand-in here for complex biomolecules in general." The choice of what to model doesn't determine a choice of what to analyze for in the physical world.

      • (Score: 2) by FatPhil on Tuesday July 24 2018, @11:13PM (1 child)

        by FatPhil (863) <reversethis-{if.fdsa} {ta} {tnelyos-cp}> on Tuesday July 24 2018, @11:13PM (#712014) Homepage
        But no matter how accurate my models for how water breaks down calcium carbide into acetylene, and how ozone and a spark breaks down acetylene into CO2, no amount of detection of CO2 will let me infer that there used to be calcium carbide. "A is, amongst other things, the output of B" simply does not imply that detection of A implies B.
        Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people; the smallest discuss themselves
        • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday July 25 2018, @04:24PM

          by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday July 25 2018, @04:24PM (#712453)

          You missed the point: this is just a computer model. Nobody's saying that amino acids were detected on Europa. Nor are they proposing to look for amino acids on Europa. And furthermore, no one's saying that the presence of amino acids implies the presence of life. Whoosh!

  • (Score: 3, Funny) by Alfred on Tuesday July 24 2018, @01:06PM (5 children)

    by Alfred (4006) on Tuesday July 24 2018, @01:06PM (#711689) Journal
    What can they learn here that I haven't already learned from documentary "europa report" []
    • (Score: 3, Funny) by takyon on Tuesday July 24 2018, @01:12PM (3 children)

      by takyon (881) <reversethis-{gro ... s} {ta} {noykat}> on Tuesday July 24 2018, @01:12PM (#711694) Journal

      We can't learn much of anything until we drill inside the ocean and find all the alien fish.

      [SIG] 10/28/2017: Soylent Upgrade v14 []
      • (Score: 2) by PartTimeZombie on Tuesday July 24 2018, @10:27PM (2 children)

        by PartTimeZombie (4827) on Tuesday July 24 2018, @10:27PM (#711991)

        I realise you jest, but I wonder what the odds would be of finding some tasty alien fish (analogues) in the Europan ocean?

        • (Score: 2) by takyon on Tuesday July 24 2018, @11:57PM (1 child)

          by takyon (881) <reversethis-{gro ... s} {ta} {noykat}> on Tuesday July 24 2018, @11:57PM (#712040) Journal

          There's no way to know the odds. I suspect that there is not a lot of middle ground; either life is ubiquitous where water and organic molecules are, or it isn't.

          Maybe in the deep future we'll have done surveys in most of the subsurface oceans in the solar system [], and we can come up with odds based on the amount of gravitational/tidal heating, composition, and other factors. And then apply that to directly imaged icy exoplanets and exomoons.

          [SIG] 10/28/2017: Soylent Upgrade v14 []
          • (Score: 2) by PartTimeZombie on Wednesday July 25 2018, @12:36AM

            by PartTimeZombie (4827) on Wednesday July 25 2018, @12:36AM (#712059)

            You're right of course.

            When I was 8 or so and started reading SF I rather assumed that we would have made contact with aliens of some sort by 2018.

            It just seemed to be so far in the future, and we already got to the Moon, so Mars and all the rest wouldn't be out of our reach, surely?

            If we (as a species) had the will, I think we could have already send a probe towards Alpha Proxima, not to mention properly exploring the other planets and moons we actually have access to.

              Never mind. A grumpy old Zombie can still dream.

    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 24 2018, @03:05PM

      by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 24 2018, @03:05PM (#711742)

      This is a simulation.