NASA's Europa Mission: Searching for Life

NASA's Europa Mission: Searching for Life
NASA's Europa Mission: Searching for Life

US space scientists unveiled the interplanetary probe NASA plans to send to one of Jupiter's icy moons as part of humanity's hunt for extraterrestrial life.

The Clipper spacecraft is due to blast off in October bound for Europa, one of dozens of moons orbiting the Solar System's biggest planet, and the nearest spot in our celestial neighborhood that could offer a perch for life.

"One of the fundamental questions that NASA wants to understand is, are we alone in the cosmos?" Bob Pappalardo, the mission's project scientist said.

"If we were to find the conditions for life, and then someday actually find life in a place like Europa, then that would say in our own solar system there are two examples of life: Earth and Europa."

"That would be huge for understanding how common life might be throughout the universe," he added.

The $5 billion probe is currently at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, sitting in a "clean room" -- a sealed area only accessible to people wearing head-to-toe covering.

The precautions are to ensure the probe remains free of contaminants to avoid transporting Earthly microbes to Europa.

In 2031, it should be in orbit around Jupiter and Europa, where it will begin a detailed study of the moon scientists believe is covered in frozen water.

Scientists know from extreme environments on Earth -- like light-starved geothermal vents located deep under the polar ice cap -- that tiny beings can find purchase almost anywhere.

The science is not easy -- a powerful radiation field around Europa could degrade the instruments, which will be getting the equivalent of 100,000 chest x-rays every circuit around the moon.

The vast distances involved mean that when Clipper sends its data back, the signal will take 45 minutes to arrive at Mission Control.

The mission, planning for which began in the late 1990s, is expected to conclude around 2034, when Clipper will likely have reached the end of its useful life.