One of the many goals of NASA is to determine whether or not there are any other life forms in our solar system or outside of it. For this purpose, the agency’s latest ambition is to look for various signs of life on Europa, Jupiter’s moon, by drilling underneath its ice shell.
Scientists believe that beneath the Europa’ thick layers of ice measuring around 10 to 15 miles, there is a massive ocean which contains twice as much water as Earth’s entire seas. This is why many scientists are betting on Europa as the best chance of finding life in our solar system.
This belief is further strengthened by Hubble’s evidence of water-vapor plumes seen emanating from the moon’s south polar region. This finding suggests that the material from the ocean falls back again on the icy surface of the natural satellite.
NASA’s mission to Europa will involve the soft landing of a lander capable of analyzing various chemicals seen as signs of life. However, such a landing involves firing thrusters to slow down the rover’s approach to the surface. The thrusters use a lot of ammonia, which contains nitrogen, which would be spread around the surface, contaminating any possible chemical evidence of life.
Nitrogen is an essential chemical in lifeforms and contamination from the thrusters would make the scientists unable to determine the origins of the nitrogen they find on the surface of Europa, whether it was native on the Jupiter’s moon or if it was imported from Earth.
Usually, rovers can move around after they land so they can analyze areas that were not contaminated just like Curiosity did on Mars. However, scientists don’t know much about of the hazards on Europa and the rover could easily remain stuck in its landing region, which would be contaminated with Earth nitrogen in an area of around 30 feet.
Given these conditions, scientists believe that the best chance of detecting any signs of life using a rover would be underneath the surface of Europa. However, the lander will have to be equipped with drilling equipment so that it can pierce the hard layers of ice and obtain uncontaminated, pristine samples which can be analyzed for genuine chemical evidence of life. Scientists believe that drilling 4-inches beneath the surface is just enough to avoid contamination.
Image credit: NASA