Q&A: Europa and Jupiter mission
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Posted 09 March 2010 - 05:28 PM
The US and European space agencies have drawn up plans for a major space mission to the Jupiter system, to launch in 2020, a talking point at last week's Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Texas. The Europa-Jupiter System Mission will focus on Jupiter's icy satellites Europa and Ganymede, investigating their chemistry and geology.
Dr Robert Pappalardo from Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory has led a study to scope out the venture. He told BBC science reporter Paul Rincon why this mission could yield "spectacular results".
PR: Why is Europa such an attractive target for planetary scientists?
RP: Europa rises to the top of places that we want to explore in the Solar System, because we're trying to understand whether it's an environment where life could possibly exist. Europa probably has a subsurface ocean of liquid water, where that ocean is in direct contact with rock below it and that ocean is below an ice shell that is relatively thin.
So Europa may have the ingredients for life. It almost certainly has liquid water and probably has the molecules from which life can be built. And a big question is whether it has the chemical energy that can allow for life in that ocean below the surface.
PR: What kind of life might survive on Europa? Are there any analogues on Earth that could give us clues?
RP: If there's life at Europa, we're not expecting it would be big fish or whales or anything, we're expecting it would be microbial life - single-celled organisms. That's the picture of what life could be like there. I don't want to give the wrong impression.
This mission isn't to find life, but to understand whether Europa has the environmental conditions that might allow for life. Then we could follow up in the future with missions that could actually search for whether there is evidence of life.
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