Russian scientists intend to send a research spacecraft to one of Jupiter’s satellites, Europa. US and European space agencies revealed similar plans as well.
The Space Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences welcomed several delegations of foreign scientists last week to discuss the issues of exploring one of Jupiter’s moons. The specialists gathered to discuss the potential problems, which may appear during research missions to Europa.
Europa is one of the most attractive celestial bodies in the solar system. Scientists do not doubt about the existence of the ocean underneath its layers of ice. They actively discuss a possible existence of life forms in the water environment of the moon. The rovers that may head to Europa in the future will try to find an answer to this question.
“It is too early to say that a mission to Europa is ready. We will have to study every detail of the project at first and look into all potential difficulties that may arise from this initiative. The process will take a couple of years, and we will then decide if the Russian mission to Europa becomes a reality or not,” a leading scientist of the above-mentioned institute, A.V. Zakharov told Pravda.ru
If Russia eventually decides to launch a spacecraft to Europa, it will take seven or eight years to complete all technical preparations to the project. Thus, the rover will most likely be launched not earlier than 2020.
NASA also announced its readiness to launch a group of rovers to Europa. The US space agency is expected to make an official announcement on the matter this week.
Europa was discovered in 1610 by Galileo Galilei (and possibly independently by Simon Marius), and named after a mythical Phoenician noblewoman, Europa, who was courted by Zeus and became the queen of Crete. It is the smallest of the four Galilean moons.
At just over 3100 km diameter, Europa is slightly smaller than Earth's Moon and is the sixth-largest moon in the Solar System. Though by a wide margin the least massive of the Galilean satellites, its mass nonetheless significantly exceeds the combined mass of all moons in the Solar System smaller than itself. It is primarily made of silicate rock and likely has an iron core. It has a tenuous atmosphere composed primarily of oxygen. Its surface is composed of ice and is one of the smoothest in the Solar System. This young surface is striated by cracks and streaks, while craters are relatively infrequent. The apparent youth and smoothness of the surface have led to the hypothesis that a water ocean exists beneath it, which could conceivably serve as an abode for extraterrestrial life. Heat energy from tidal flexing ensures that the ocean remains liquid and drives geological activity.
Although only fly-by missions have visited the moon, the intriguing characteristics of Europa have led to several ambitious exploration proposals. The Galileo mission provided the bulk of current data on Europa, while the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter, cancelled in 2005, would have targeted Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. Conjecture on extraterrestrial life has ensured a high profile for the moon and has led to steady lobbying for future missions.