NASA Mission to Jupiter’s Watery Moon Europa Begins Development

A mission to Jupiter's ice-clad moon Europa has moved from concept stage to active development, NASA announced Wednesday. "It’s a great day for science," said NASA's Joan Salute, who heads the Europa program, in a news release. "We are thrilled to pass the first major milestone in the lifecycle of a mission that will ultimately inform us on the habitability of Europa."

Artist's impression of a probe over the surface of Europa. NASA

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Europa is a juicy target for astrobiologists because of what seems to be a huge body of water underneath the moon's frozen crust. And where there's water, there's a chance for life — at least, that's the rule here on Earth. Unfortunately, NASA won't be landing on the surface or deploying the squid-like underwater rover proposed earlier.

Because Jupiter emits such intense radiation, NASA will be sending a probe into a long, elliptical orbit around the planet itself, and dipping in close to investigate Europa in regular, brief visits that won't fry any vulnerable electronics.

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The instruments that will be used to observe Europa were announced in late May, but now begins the hard work of designing and building the probe itself. There's no hurry, though: If all goes well, launch won't be until some time in the 2020s — possibly around the same time as the European Space Agency's mission to the gas giant.