The four Galilean moons of Jupiter from volcanic Io (l) to distant Callisto (r). Europa and Ganymede (2nd and 3rd respectively) are thought to have liquid water oceans under their icy crusts, and each will be investigated by upcoming NASA (Europa) and European (Ganymede) missions. Callisto also may have a subsurface ocean, although it is thought to be more likely frozen or at least slushy ice. It will also be examined by the European mission
At the end of February / start of March 2017, NASA hosted the “Planetary Science Vision 2050 Workshop” at their headquarters in Washington, DC. The workshop covered a number of ideas for the future exploration of the solar system using automated means.
Two of the more interesting areas of discussion were the exploration of the “ocean worlds” of the solar system, notably Jupiter’s Europa and Saturn’s Enceladus. The other was options for exploring Saturn’s moon Titan.
The “Icy Worlds”
As I’ve recently reported Europa is already the target of the upcoming Europa Multi Flyby mission, due to launch in the early 2020, and which is now known once more by its earlier title of Europa Clipper. However, at the workshop, scientists looked at future options for exploring it, starting with the lander mission already being planned as a follow-on mission.
What makes these icy worlds so interesting is that under their crusts of ice, there may well be oceans of liquid water. Europa and Enceladus in particular have demonstrated very strong signs that under a surface coating of ice, they have liquid water oceans, perhaps 100 km (62.5 mi) deep in the case of Europa.
Europa’s internal structure, showing the subsurface ocean which could be up to 100 km (62.5 mi) deep. This layer might also either be relatively solid ice or icy slush, depending on the amount of heat being generated deeper inside Europa
These oceans are kept in a liquid state due to gravitational flexing: they are constantly being pulled in different directions by the gravities of their parent planet and the other moons in orbit around it. The flexing generates heat, and this heat could be sufficient to keep the water trapped under the ice crust of such a world in a liquid state. It could also mean that the ocean bed of such a world might be the locations of hydrothermal vents and fumeroles which are pushing out the heat, energy, minerals and chemicals needed to kick-start life.
The reason Europa’s ocean might be liquid is flexing. The gravitational pull of Jupiter and from the other Galilean moons constantly plays on Europa, causing it to flex as it is pulled in different directions. This flexing generate heat deep inside the moon, and this heat could both radiate out to warm the waters of the ocean and give rise to hydrothermal vents of the sea bed, which could harbour basic life
Europa, Ganyemede and Callisto, around Jupiter show every indication of such sub-surface oceans, although Ganyemede’s and Callisto’s case, it might be more icy slush than liquid water. Both will be the subject of study by Europe’s Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer, due for launch in 2022.
Europa’s ocean is believed to be liquid both as a result of spectral analysis of the ice covering it, and because images of the moon captured by the Hubble Space Telescope appear to show huge geysers erupting from the moon’s south polar regions.
Geysers of water vapour have also been seen erupting from Enceladus by NASA’s Cassini mission, indicating it also has a liquid ocean under its covering of ice.
Worldlets like Ceres and Pluto also appear to have liquid interiors overlaying their cores, although the processes that might by allowing such liquid layers – likely water – have yet to be properly understood.
Of them all, Europa perhaps shows the strongest evidence for harbouring life-giving nutrients within its oceans, marking it as a prime candidate for study. This is because of the reddish-brown staining covering much of its surface. Most of this is likely debris from the huge volcanic eruptions which occur on Io, the innermost of the Galilean moons of Jupiter, and the one experiencing the greatest levels of gravitational flexing. However, some of Europa’s straining might be material deposited as a result of geyser action, particularly where the stains appear to run along many of the fault lines which crack Europa’s surface.
Given all this, planetary scientists are itching to get a vehicle onto the surface on Europa and – if possible, get one through the ice and into the ocean beneath it. Hence the discussions at the NASA workshop.
A dramatic line of plumes spray water ice and vapour from the south polar region of Saturn’s moon Enceladus as seen by the Cassini mission in February 2005. Similar venting of water may give rise to some of the brown stains of material covering much of Europa’s surface Credit: NASA/JPL / Space Science Institute
As I noted in writing about Europa Clipper (see the link above), a lander mission is already in the advanced planning stages thanks to strong support for missions to Europa in Congress. It could potentially take place just a couple of years after Europa Clipper arrives in orbit around Jupiter, and would have three mission objectives:
- Search for biosignatures and signs of life by analysing the surface and subsurface deposits on Europa, particularly recently erupted material near the lander’s location
- Analyse the composition of the surface ice and determine the proximity of liquid water beneath the ice
- Attempt to identify the dynamic processes responsible for shaping Europa’s surface and its properties.
An artist’s impression of a possible Europa submersible, with it deployment system in the background. Credit: NASA
If the lander mission detects signs of life or strong evidence of life-giving materials within Europa’s ice sheet, then it will likely pave the wave for the most ambitious mission of all: sending a vehicle to Europa with the means to penetrate the surface ice and release an automated submersible into the waters below to search for possible life.
While there is no time frame for such a mission, it has long been a goal for NASA and scientists. So much so that there have been numerous studies and even competitions for such vehicles, and a broad range of proposals and designs have been put forward. As such, it could be that such a mission could follow the Europa lander mission relatively quickly – perhaps within a decade.