Are We Alone in the Universe? NASA Calls for New Framework

TRAPPIST-1 f super Earth exoplanet (Credit: NASA)

by Elizabeth Landau
NASA Headquarters

How do we understand the significance of new scientific results related to the search for life? When would we be able to say, “yes, extraterrestrial life has been found?” 

NASA scientists are encouraging the scientific community to establish a new framework that provides context for findings related to the search for life. Writing in the journal Nature, they propose creating a scale for evaluating and combining different lines of evidence that would  ultimately lead to answering the ultimate question: Are we alone in the universe?   

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Hubble Finds Evidence of Persistent Water Vapor in One Hemisphere of Europa

This photograph of the Jovian moon Europa was taken in June 1997 at a range of 776,700 miles by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft. Slightly smaller than Earth’s moon, Europa has a very smooth surface and the solid ice crust has the appearance of a cracked eggshell. The interior has a global ocean with more water than found on Earth. It could possibly harbor life as we know it. Hubble Space Telescope observations of Europa have revealed the presence of persistent water vapor in its very tenuous atmosphere. Hubble observations, spanning 1999 to 2015, find that water vapor is constantly being replenished throughout one hemisphere of the moon. This is a different finding from Hubble’s 2013 observations that found localized water vapor from geysers venting from its subsurface ocean. This water vapor comes from a different process entirely. Sunlight causes the surface ice to sublimate, transitioning directly into gas. This color composite Galileo view combines violet, green, and infrared images. The view of the moon is shown in natural color (left) and in enhanced color designed to bring out subtle color differences in the surface (right). The bright white and bluish part of Europa’s surface is composed mostly of water ice, with very few non-ice materials. Long, dark lines are fractures in the crust, some of which are more than 1,850 miles long. The Galileo mission ended on Sept. 21, 2003, when the spacecraft was intentionally commanded to dive into Jupiter’s atmosphere, where it was destroyed. However, to this day scientists continue to study the data it collected. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California managed the Galileo mission for NASA’s Office of Space Science, Washington, DC. JPL is an operating division of California Institute of Technology (Caltech). This image and other images and data received from Galileo are posted on the Galileo mission home page. Background information and educational context are also available for the images. (Credits: NASA, NASA-JPL, University of Arizona)

GREENBELT, Md. (NASA PR) — NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope observations of Jupiter’s icy moon Europa have revealed the presence of persistent water vapor – but, mysteriously, only in one hemisphere.

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A Few Steps Closer to Europa: Spacecraft Hardware Makes Headway

Contamination control engineers in a clean room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, evaluate a propellant tank before it is installed in NASA’s Europa Clipper spacecraft. The tank is one of two that will be used to hold the spacecraft’s propellant. It will be inserted into the cylinder seen at left in the background, one of two cylinders that make up the propulsion module. (Credit: NASA/GSFC Denny Henry)

Take a closer look at the complex choreography involved in building NASA’s Europa Clipper as the mission to explore Jupiter’s moon Europa approaches its 2024 launch date.

PASADENA, Calif. (NASA PR) – The hardware that makes up NASA’s Europa Clipper spacecraft is rapidly taking shape, as engineering components and instruments are prepared for delivery to the main clean room at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. In workshops and labs across the country and in Europe, teams are crafting the complex pieces that make up the whole as mission leaders direct the elaborate choreography of building a flagship mission.

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Surface of Jupiter’s Moon Europa Churned by Small Impacts

NASA’s Europa Clipper mission is being designed to fly by the icy Jovian moon multiple times and investigate whether it possesses the ingredients necessary for life. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute)

Jupiter’s moon Europa and its global ocean may currently have conditions suitable for life. Scientists are studying processes on the icy surface as they prepare to explore.

PASADENA, Calif. (NASA PR) — It’s easy to see the impact of space debris on our Moon, where the ancient, battered surface is covered with craters and scars. Jupiter’s icy moon Europa withstands a similar trouncing – along with a punch of super-intense radiation. As the uppermost surface of the icy moon churns, material brought to the surface is zapped by high-energy electron radiation accelerated by Jupiter.

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NASA Science Budget Request Fact Sheet

Europa Clipper in orbit around Europa. (Credit: NASA)

NASA FACT SHEET
FY 2022 Budget Request
Science
($ Millions)

NASA’s Science budget, managed by the Science Mission Directorate, includes five major science areas as well as the James Webb Space Telescope which is funded separately from Astrophysics. These areas include:

  • Earth Science to enhance understanding of Earth systems and to observe the effects of climate change. The Budget invests heavily in climate and applications research, begins formulation of the first four Designated Observable missions, and initiates the Earth System Explorers program (consistent with Decadal Survey recommendations). The Budget also supports the ongoing development of the Earth System Observatory including PACE, CLARREO Pathfinder, NISAR, SWOT, and Landsat 9.
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Europa’s Interior May Be Hot Enough to Fuel Seafloor Volcanoes

Europa Clipper in orbit around Europa. (Credit: NASA)

Jupiter’s moon Europa has an icy crust covering a vast, global ocean. The rocky layer underneath may be hot enough to melt, leading to undersea volcanoes.

PASADENA, Calif. (NASA PR) — New research and computer modeling show that volcanic activity may have occurred on the seafloor of Jupiter’s moon Europa in the recent past – and may still be happening. NASA’s upcoming Europa Clipper mission, targeting a 2024 launch, will swoop close to the icy moon and collect measurements that may shed light on the recent findings.

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COVID-19 Delays to Cost NASA $3 Billion

High-resolution illustration of the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope against a starry background. (Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic will cost NASA an estimated $3 billion due to program delays, according to a report from the space agency’s Office of Inspector General.

The report focused on the pandemic’s impact on 30 major programs and project with life-cycle costs of at least $250 million.

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NASA’s Europa Clipper Builds Hardware, Moves Toward Assembly

Europa Clipper in orbit around Europa. (Credit: NASA)

Jupiter’s moon Europa may have the potential to harbor life. The spacecraft will use multiple flybys of the moon to investigate the habitability of this ocean world.

PASADENA, Calif. (NASA PR) — Europa Clipper, NASA’s upcoming flagship mission to the outer solar system, has passed a significant milestone, completing its Critical Design Review. During the review, experts examined the detailed design of the spacecraft to ensure that it is ready to complete construction. The mission is now able to complete hardware fabrication and testing, and move toward the assembly and testing of the spacecraft and its payload of sophisticated science instruments.

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NASA Issues RFI for Europa Clipper Launch

Europa Clipper in orbit around Europa. (Credit; NASA)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

In a blow to Space Launch System (SLS) backers, NASA has issued a request for information (RFI) for the October 2024 launch of the Europa Clipper orbiter that will search for signs of life on Jupiter’s enigmatic, ice-covered moon Europa.

It’s a clear sign that NASA is seeking commercial alternatives to launching the spacecraft on SLS. Congress had previously mandated by law that Europa Clipper’s orbiter and a follow-up lander be launched on the massive rocket. However, the most recent spending law stipulated that NASA should use SLS if one is available.

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NASA’s Juno Mission Expands Into the Future

This view from the JunoCam imager on NASA’s Juno spacecraft shows two storms merging. The two white ovals seen within the orange-colored band left of center are anticyclonic storms – that is, storms that rotate counterclockwise. The image was taken on Dec. 26, 2019. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS Image processing by Tanya Oleksuik, © CC BY)

The spacecraft, which has been gathering data on the gas giant since July 2016, will become an explorer of the full Jovian system – Jupiter and its rings and moons.

PASADENA, Calif. (NASA PR) — NASA has authorized a mission extension for its Juno spacecraft exploring Jupiter. The agency’s most distant planetary orbiter will now continue its investigation of the solar system’s largest planet through September 2025, or until the spacecraft’s end of life. This expansion tasks Juno with becoming an explorer of the full Jovian system – Jupiter and its rings and moons – with multiple rendezvous planned for three of Jupiter’s most intriguing Galilean moons: Ganymede, Europa, and Io.

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Potential Plumes on Europa Could Come From Water in the Crust

This illustration of Jupiter’s icy moon Europa depicts a cryovolcanic eruption in which brine from within the icy shell could blast into space. A new model proposing this process may also shed light on plumes on other icy bodies. (Credit: Justice Wainwright)

Scientists have theorized on the origin of the water plumes possibly erupting from Jupiter’s moon Europa. Recent research adds a new potential source to the mix.


PASADENA, Calif. (NASA PR) — Plumes of water vapor that may be venting into space from Jupiter’s moon Europa could come from within the icy crust itself, according to new research. A model outlines a process for brine, or salt-enriched water, moving around within the moon’s shell and eventually forming pockets of water – even more concentrated with salt – that could erupt.

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Europa Glows: Radiation Does a Bright Number on Jupiter’s Moon

This illustration of Jupiter’s moon Europa shows how the icy surface may glow on its nightside, the side facing away from the Sun. Variations in the glow and the color of the glow itself could reveal information about the composition of ice on Europa’s surface. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

New lab experiments re-create the environment of Europa and find that the icy moon shines, even on its nightside. The effect is more than just a cool visual.


PASADENA, Calif. (NASA PR) — As the icy, ocean-filled moon Europa  orbits Jupiter, it withstands a relentless pummeling of radiation. Jupiter zaps Europa’s surface night and day with electrons and other particles, bathing it in high-energy radiation. But as these particles pound the moon’s surface, they may also be doing something otherworldly: making Europa glow in the dark.

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Senate Appropriations Committee Sticks a Fork in NASA’s 2024 Moon Landing Plan

Artemis Gateway (Credit: Thales Alenia Space/Briot)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

It looks as if the Trump Administration’s goal of landing astronauts on the moon in 2024 is expiring at about the same time as the administration itself. The fatal blow is being struck by Congress, not the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden.

The Senate Appropriations Committee has released a fiscal year 2021 funding bill that includes $1 billion for NASA to Human Landing System (HLS) that will take astronauts to and from the lunar surface as part of the Artemis program. The amount is far short of the $3.2 billion that NASA has said is needed for HLS to keep the 2024 landing on schedule.

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Are Planets with Oceans Common in the Galaxy? It’s Likely, NASA Scientists Find

This illustration shows NASA’s Cassini spacecraft flying through plumes on Enceladus in October 2015. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

by Lonnie Shekhtman
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

Greenbelt, Md. (NASA PR) — Several years ago, planetary scientist Lynnae Quick began to wonder whether any of the more than 4,000 known exoplanets, or planets beyond our solar system, might resemble some of the watery moons around Jupiter and Saturn.

Though some of these moons don’t have atmospheres and are covered in ice, they are still among the top targets in NASA’s search for life beyond Earth. Saturn’s moon Enceladus and Jupiter’s moon Europa, which scientists classify as “ocean worlds,” are good examples.

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