UT scientists discuss lander mission to Europa

Cinnamon Cornell

UT scientists are designing a mission to Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter, to test theories that the moon’s large supply of liquid water might contain life.

Scientists Don Blankenship, Britney Schmidt and Krista Soderlund have developed a blueprint for a prospective NASA lander mission to Europa. Lander missions involve sending unmanned spacecrafts to the surface of a planet in order to collect geologic data as well as other information. The concept was developed to investigate the moon’s potential to support life.

Soderlund, a postdoctoral fellow at the University’s Institute for Geophysics, said the mission was designed so scientists can examine Europa’s potential for sustaining life.

“The primary science objectives and investigations are to understand the habitability of Europa’s ocean through composition and chemistry,” Soderlund said.

The highest priority of the lander mission concept is to answer questions about the chemical makeup of the ice surrounding Jupiter’s global ocean, Soderlund said. NASA’s Galileo mission, which explored the moons of Jupiter in the ‘90s, collected strong evidence indicating the possibility of a deep water ocean beneath the moon’s surface.

Blankenship, a senior research scientist at the institute, said the lander mission will focus on gathering specifics about the ice.

“[The objective is] to characterize the local thickness, heterogeneity and dynamics of any ice and water layers,” Blankenship said.

To characterize the dynamics of the ice and water layers, the scientists must create the lander mission to measure the seismicity and induced magnetic fields and to characterize the surface geology by obtaining high resolution images, Soderlund said. 

The trio has been at the forefront of developing the project to explore Europa. Schmidt, a former postdoctoral fellow at the institute and current assistant professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, said landing on Jupiter’s moon would provide valuable information that is impossible to gather from a distance.

“[The mission] would create science opportunities that could not be achieved through flyby or orbital remote sensing, with direct relevance to Europa’s potential habitability,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt said the trio discussed the suggested science objectives and investigations for a Europa lander mission, along with a model planning payload of instruments that could address specific objectives. In discussions, the trio summarized the science of a Europa lander concept, as developed by the NASA-commissioned Science Definition Team.

Currently, the three scientists working to plan specifics for the mission to ensure the spacecraft will be prepared to gather evidence upon landing.