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Jupiter's icy moon Europa is one of the most tantalizing worlds for exploration — which is why NASA scientists are deep in the process of designing Europa Clipper, a spacecraft meant to crack its secrets.
Europa Clipper will launch as soon as 2023, then trek out to the Jupiter system for about 40 close passes over the mysterious icy moon. Once it arrives, the spacecraft will gather vital information about the moon's geology, composition and hidden interior ocean. But before the team can get to work building the spacecraft, it has one final review to pass.
Life - Icy - Moon - Surface - Oceans
Any life on an icy moon wouldn't be on the surface: It would be hidden in interior oceans, where the pull of a nearby planet's gravity keeps water liquid. All life as we know it right now needs water. In addition, geologic activity on the seafloor could provide chemicals to feed microorganisms. and the ice would block dangerous radiation that pummels the surface. So, while there's plenty of other science to do at Europa, understanding its habitability — or lack thereof — is a key piece of the mission. "People care about it, people want to know about this mysterious world that might harbor life," Pappalardo said. "That's a really important reason to do it."
An artist's depiction of the Europa Clipper spacecraft at work near Jupiter's moon Europa.
Spacecraft - Set - Instruments - Mysteries - Moon
The spacecraft will carry a set of nine instruments designed to work together to solve some of those big mysteries and to assess how habitable the moon really is. During its visit, the spacecraft will come within just 15.5 miles (25 kilometers) of Europa's surface, and that alone bodes well for scientists on the mission. "We're going to get fantastic images back," Christina Richey, staff scientist on Europa Clipper, told Space.com.
That ice shell has plenty of secrets, not the...
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