NASA announced on Tuesday that nine scientific instruments out of 33 that were reviewed have been selected for the upcoming Europa Clipper mission. The Europa Clipper will launch as early as 2022 and will orbit Jupiter, making repeated flyby passes of the icy moon Europa. It will approach as close as 16 miles and as far as 1,700 miles during the planned 47 passes.
The Europa Clipper has long been in the concept stage at the space agency and has been high on the wish lists of planetary scientists. The mission got renewed impetus thanks to the supper of Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, who chairs the House subcommittee that funds NASA. For the first time, the Obama administration included a line item for the Europa Clipper in its FY 2016 funding request to the tune of $30 million. However, Congress is likely to substantially increase that amount to $150 million.
The instruments include:
“Plasma Instrument for Magnetic Sounding (PIMS) — principal investigator Dr. Joseph Westlake of Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), Laurel, Maryland. This instrument works in conjunction with a magnetometer and is key to determining Europa’s ice shell thickness, ocean depth, and salinity by correcting the magnetic induction signal for plasma currents around Europa.
“Interior Characterization of Europa using Magnetometry (ICEMAG) — principal investigator Dr. Carol Raymond of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, California. This magnetometer will measure the magnetic field near Europa and – in conjunction with the PIMS instrument – infer the location, thickness and salinity of Europa’s subsurface ocean using multi-frequency electromagnetic sounding.
“Mapping Imaging Spectrometer for Europa (MISE) — principal investigator Dr. Diana Blaney of JPL. This instrument will probe the composition of Europa, identifying and mapping the distributions of organics, salts, acid hydrates, water ice phases, and other materials to determine the habitability of Europa’s ocean.
“Europa Imaging System (EIS) — principal investigator Dr. Elizabeth Turtle of APL. The wide and narrow angle cameras on this instrument will map most of Europa at 50 meter (164 foot) resolution, and will provide images of areas of Europa’s surface at up to 100 times higher resolution.
“Radar for Europa Assessment and Sounding: Ocean to Near-surface (REASON) — principal investigator Dr. Donald Blankenship of the University of Texas, Austin. This dual-frequency ice penetrating radar instrument is designed to characterize and sound Europa’s icy crust from the near-surface to the ocean, revealing the hidden structure of Europa’s ice shell and potential water within.
“Europa Thermal Emission Imaging System (E-THEMIS) — principal investigator Dr. Philip Christensen of Arizona State University, Tempe. This “heat detector” will provide high spatial resolution, multi-spectral thermal imaging of Europa to help detect active sites, such as potential vents erupting plumes of water into space.
“MAss SPectrometer for Planetary EXploration/Europa (MASPEX) — principal investigator Dr. Jack (Hunter) Waite of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), San Antonio. This instrument will determine the composition of the surface and subsurface ocean by measuring Europa’s extremely tenuous atmosphere and any surface material ejected into space.
“Ultraviolet Spectrograph/Europa (UVS) — principal investigator Dr. Kurt Retherford of SwRI. This instrument will adopt the same technique used by the Hubble Space Telescope to detect the likely presence of water plumes erupting from Europa’s surface. UVS will be able to detect small plumes and will provide valuable data about the composition and dynamics of the moon’s rarefied atmosphere.
“SUrface Dust Mass Analyzer (SUDA) — principal investigator Dr. Sascha Kempf of the University of Colorado, Boulder. This instrument will measure the composition of small, solid particles ejected from Europa, providing the opportunity to directly sample the surface and potential plumes on low-altitude flybys.”
Europa has an outer layer of ice that scientists believe covers a sub-surface ocean of water, warmed by tidal forces exerted by Jupiter. With water and heat, all that is necessary for life would be the addition of organic compounds also thought to be present on Europa. Those facts make the icy moon of Jupiter a prime candidate for the discovery of extraterrestrial life.
The Europa Clipper will likely also include a lander. The Europa lander would be deployed as the Europa Clipper enters the Jovian system and will attempt either a hard or soft landing on the surface, depending on which design wins out, and thus will examine conditions on Europa from a close perspective.