With the establishment of NASA in 1958, the quest for evidence of life beyond Earth shortly ensued with a mission to understand existence within our universe, exceeding what was once unimaginable and purely hypothetical. In recent decades, Mars gained recognition for its notable similarities to Earth, with the hope it possesses the necessary conditions to host life and the possible candidacy for acting as an alternative for humans to inhabit in the foreseeable future. In 1965, the Mariner 4 probe discovered that Mars lacks a magnetic field necessary for shielding life forms from radiation, diminishing optimism for life on the planet. Nonetheless, all hope was not lost as there are three operating rovers on Mars, including NASA’s rover, Perseverance, programmed to explore its surface to detect traces of evidence of past and present life on the planet. Although much focus and resources are allocated to studying Mars, there is an underrated extraterrestrial body with great potential for life, often overshadowed by its red counterpart.
This said underdog is Europa, the smallest of Jupiter’s four Galilean moons, eponymous of a Phoenician princess in Greek mythology. According to Dr. Robert Pappalardo, a Europa Mission Project Scientist, “We believe Europa has the so-called ingredients for life: water, the right chemistry, and chemical energy. These are the three ingredients we look for to determine whether a world is habitable and this is what we are trying to confirm through the Europa mission.”
Observations made through telescopes, including the Hubble Space Telescope, have led scientists to believe Europa contains an ocean, likely containing greater quantities of water than all of Earth’s oceans amassed.
“On Earth, just about everywhere there is water, there is life,” Pappalardo stated. “Because there is likely water on Europa, this proves to be a promising sign. We could find something that is like an oasis — a place where there are organic materials and there is evidence of internal heat and liquid water not too far down below the surface.” According to Pappalardo, this could be a place we could potentially follow up on to send a lander for future search of life. “If we were to find plumes (places where liquid water is coming out of the subsurface and escaping to space) in Europa, we would have the opportunity to fly through and extract samples from the subsurface, bringing them to Earth in future missions.” This may reveal promising landing areas for future exploratory missions, providing us with insight into methods and landing plans for following explorations.
The mission status remains a work in progress, as the Europa Clipper team is operating at full speed, progressively preparing for the projected launch on Oct. 10, 2024. According to NASA, due to the vast distance between Earth and Jupiter (an estimated 630.4 million kilometers), the Europa Clipper will reach its destination within five and a half years from departure, arriving in April 2030.
On Dec. 23, 2022, I viewed the Europa Clipper in person at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge, California with my own eyes. I watched from a bird’s eye view behind the observatory glass display, in awe, as a team of approximately 10 employees worked away tirelessly, laboriously climbing up and down ladders to reach the peak of the 16-foot-tall spacecraft. To ensure the sterilization of the workplace, the spacecraft builders wore bunny suits, comparable to hazmat suits, encasing them from head to toe in polyethylene. One worker in particular drew much attention from fellow visitors, as they questioned how he managed to stand completely still for the extended quarterly hour. To our humbling surprise, he is merely a mannequin, acting as a scale to visualize the proportions of the spacecraft to that of an average human body for moments without active workers present. Each worker, apart from the mannequin they dubbed Bob, paced back and forth throughout the workstation, seldomly standing stagnant as they repetitively positioned and repositioned the blue masking tape while tampering with the wires on the spacecraft.
That day, I witnessed an illustrious scene of scientific innovation, as we take momentous leaps forward, striving toward our goal of unearthing something greater than ourselves and surpassing the limits we initially classified as unfeasible. What once was our limit is now our starting line, as we ascend human-made objects through the sky, past the atmosphere, reaching space to explore otherworldly oceans in pursuit of alien discovery. Europa stands as a mysterious symbol of hope of new life beyond what we deem recognizable, with the promises its voluminous body of liquid water holds, awaiting our exploration.
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