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NASA moves forward with mission to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa

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Soon we may know if this space rock can support life

NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute

In the search for life elsewhere in our solar system, NASA just passed a significant milestone. The agency’s Europa mission, a plan to send a data collecting probe to Jupiter’s icy moon, has finally moved from concept phase to development phase. In short, this space agency is ready to turn the idea into reality.

For many in the scientific community, Europa has tummies all aflutter. With its icy crust and a theorized subsurface ocean, Jupiter’s fourth largest moon is perhaps the best candidate in our galactic neighborhood for finding traces of life outside of our planet. And although scientists don’t expect to find complex life forms swimming in this salty sea, many believe that conditions could be just right for some tiny organisms to survive.

Europa has tummies all aflutter

It may take some time before we can confirm whether or not these alien beings do exist, however. NASA’s current plan is not to test for life directly, but instead test for Europa’s habitability. The mission now in development is dubbed the "Europa Clipper" mission, and it calls for a space probe to "clip" Europa’s atmosphere rather than land on its surface. Once the spacecraft makes it to the moon, it will perform 45 flybys — dipping in close to Europa to gather as much data as possible before dipping back out again.

In May, NASA announced the nine instruments it had selected to test Europa’s habitability, some of which were graced with colorful acronyms. These included REASON, a radar system for looking at structures underneath the ice crust, and ICEMAG, an instrument that will map Europa’s magnetic field. Spectrometers and dust analyzers will also be used to figure out what’s floating around the moon, as well as what makes up those weird, squiggly, orange lines on its surface.

The Europa Clipper concept has successfully passed its first major review, meaning NASA considers it to be feasible. So far, the mission is on track for a launch in the mid-2020s. That may be a while from now, but the good news is you can learn more about the mission with this NASA-made video called Alien Ocean, complete with flashy transitions and a passionate soundtrack.