In 2014, NASA invited researchers to submit proposals for instruments to study Jupiter’s moon Europa. Thirty-three were reviewed and, of those, nine were selected for a mission that will launch in the 2020s 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. 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.
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 SUrface Dust Mass Analyzer (SUDA)
- SUDA Principal Investigator, Sascha Kempf
- SUDA Co-investigators, Mihály Horányi and Zoltan Sternovsky
Measuring the composition of cosmic dust provides unique insight into the physical and chemical conditions at its origin. SUDA will detect a wide variety of compounds in the dust environment around Europa and connect them to their origin on the surface. This allows simultaneous compositional mapping of many organic and inorganic components, including both major and trace compounds, with a single instrument.
Relating composition to subsurface habitability requires knowledge of both the organic and inorganic inventory in surface materials. SUDA is uniquely capable of providing both. SUDA will monitor meteoroid influx, together with the effects of space weathering, evolution, and surface aging, by analyzing the surface material with a spatial resolution of less than 100km. Recent tectonic activity, volcanism or any resurfacing event is detectable by variations in the surface composition and can be linked to corresponding geological features, including the analysis of compositional variations across large craters on Europa.
SUDA will be able to distinguish between incoming dust particles and dust originating from Europa based on the order of magnitude difference in their velocity with respect to Europa.
- SUDA will provide a spatially resolved compositional map of Europa for the regions along the groundtracks of the orbiter’s flybys.
- SUDA will characterize the alteration of Europa’s surface via exogenous dust impacts by measuring the composition, size, speed, and spatial distribution of dust in the vicinity of the moons.
- SUDA will investigate the local plasma environment of Europa by measuring the electrostatic charge of dust particles in the vicinity of the moon.
SUDA will achieve these objectives by flying through or within the ejecta clouds, measuring the chemical composition of each impacting dust particle, and tracing them either back to their origin on the surface of the moon or clearly identifying them as exogenous impactors.
Launch date: 2020’s
Launch location: TBD
Launch vehicle: TBD
Mission target: Jupiter system
Mission duration: TBD
Other organizations involved:
- NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory