One of the most intriguing missions to a celestial body in our Solar System, is one that will study whether the salty liquid water under Europa’s icy crust is habitable or not. The mission, which has been talked about for some time, now has a formal name: Europa Clipper.
NASA has long had Europa in its sights, as the prospect of liquid water, coupled with specific chemical ingredients in its seas, could provide the right conditions for life to prosper if it also possessed an energy source to give biology the kick start it needs for even the simplest organisms to form.
The name Europa Clipper is a reference to the clipper ships – three-masted streamlined sailing vessels renowned for their grace and swiftness – that sailed across the oceans of Earth in the 19th century. Following the grand tradition of these ships, which rapidly shuttled tea and other goods back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean and around the globe, the Europa Clipper spacecraft is expected to speedily sail past the icy moon possibly every two weeks in order to investigate the moon up close as often as possible.
At present, it is anticipated that the solar-powered spacecraft will be put into a long, looping orbit around its parent planet Jupiter to perform around 45 flybys of its moon at altitudes ranging from 25 kilometres to 2,700 kilometres (16 miles to 1,700 miles) over a three-year period.
"During each orbit, the spacecraft spends only a short time within the challenging radiation environment near Europa. It speeds past, gathers a huge amount of science data, then sails on out of there," said Robert Pappalardo, Europa Clipper project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
The mission concept has already completed its first major review by the agency and is now entering the development phase known as formulation. A number of science instruments have already been selected for the craft, such as cameras and spectrometers to produce high-resolution images of Europa’s surface to determine its composition, along with a magnetometer to measure the strength and direction of the moon’s magnetic field; this will allow scientists to determine the depth and salinity of its ocean.
NASA’s mission had already been informally called Europa Clipper during its conceptual phase, but now that name has stuck and with all systems go, the newly named spacecraft is likely to blast off from Earth in the 2020s.