By Jillian Kramer
Just weeks after NASA’s Europa Clipper mission quietly received a formal commitment to a final cost and timeline from the agency, it looks increasingly like the spacecraft will not fly on its legally mandated megarocket, the Space Launch System (SLS)—at least, not in the timeline outlined by Congress—documents and experts confirm.
Because of the severe radiation challenges of the Jovian system, Europa Clipper is one of the most ambitious flagship missions ever attempted by NASA, with seismic implications for the agency’s search for life beyond Earth. Europa—with its deep, ancient ocean locked beneath an icy crust—is seen by some astrobiologists as the solar system’s most promising site for harboring alien biology. In search of further signs of habitability, the Europa Clipper spacecraft will enter orbit around Jupiter and encounter the moon multiple times. With each flyby, it will collect data on Europa’s ice shell and subsurface ocean, remotely sounding the unseen fathoms below
According to Curt Niebur, the mission’s program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., Europa Clipper could answer the question of whether the right conditions exist on the icy moon to support life as we know it. If those ingredients—which include organic molecules, as well as potential energy sources such as hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor—are found on Europa, Niebur says, “we’re going to want to explore further and see if life actually has arisen under the ice.” A second mission, now in development, would land on Europa to excavate and collect samples in search of native organisms.
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