There’s water on Europa, one of 79 moons orbiting Jupiter, NASA just confirmed. And where there’s water, there could be life, according to the space agency.
The discovery, which NASA scientists announced in a November paper in the journal Nature, is the latest in a series of findings that point to some form of life possibly sharing the cosmos with Earth’s own beings.
Scientists are increasingly convinced that our planet’s microbes, plants, insects, fish, birds, lizards and apes aren’t the only living things in the universe.
But we won’t know for sure unless we investigate every potential sign of life. And that’s where NASA, Congress, and the Trump administration keep dropping the ball. It could be more than a decade before NASA launches a mission to travel the roughly 400 million miles to Europa and sample its water.
Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei discovered Europa, by way of telescope, way back in 1610. A series of probes began visiting the moon starting in the 1970s. NASA’s Galileo probe orbited Jupiter between 1995 and 2003 and repeatedly scanned Europa with its sensors. In the 2000s scientists began pointing the Hubble space telescope at the smooth, brown-white moon.
That’s when they first saw signs of “plumes”—watery geysers periodically jetting up from Europa’s icy crust. NASA revealed the plumes in 2013. Three years later, agency scientists began a yearlong survey of Europa using a telescope at the Keck Observatory in Hawaii.
On April 26, 2016, they observed around 2,000 tons of water vapor in the sky over Europa. That’s not really a lot of H2O by galactic standards. Europa’s plumes could be “rare localized events,” the scientists conceded. But they still might point to life on the frigid moon.
All the probes and scans since the 1970s “have amassed enough additional information about Europa to make it a high-priority target of investigation in NASA’s search for life,” the space agency stated on Nov. 18.
“What makes this moon so alluring is the possibility that it may possess all of the ingredients necessary for life,” NASA continued. “Scientists have evidence that one of these ingredients, liquid water, is present under the icy surface and may sometimes erupt into space in huge geysers.”
The problem is, the only mission to Europa that NASA is working on doesn’t include the best equipment for investigating the possibility of life. “If your job is to look for life beyond Earth, if your quest is to show that there’s life on worlds other than our own, this Europan spritz is a magnificent opportunity,” Seth Shostak, an astronomer with the California-based SETI Institute, told The Daily Beast. The SETI Institute searches for extraterrestrial life, primarily by listening for alien radio broadcasts.
“All that may be required to find aliens—albeit, microscopic ones—is to launch a spacecraft towards Jupiter, swing around Europa and robotically grab some of the water vapor the moon shoots your way,” Shostak added.
“By either bringing that frozen water back to Earth, or simply examining it with an on-board microscope, we might find some life within—just as we could find bacteria by carefully looking at the water droplets from a sneeze. It may be the quickest way to show that life is everywhere.”
But NASA’s only new Europa probe, Clipper, is set to launch in 2025 without any ability to scoop up Europa’s water. For that, it would need a robotic lander that could actually descend to the moon’s surface, bottle up some samples then boost back into orbit. Without a lander, the $4-billion Clipper is limited to conducting remote scans.
There once was a plan to outfit Clipper with a lander. But it was risky. “It is most challenging at Europa due to the temporal nature of the plumes and the high-radiation environment under which the samples have to be collected and the instruments have to gain information,” Dirk Schulze-Makuch, an astronomer at Technical University Berlin, told The Daily Beast.
The lander scheme had just one champion in Congress, Houston-area Republican representative John Culberson. “He was somewhat single-handedly setting the congressional budget to have a Europa lander,” Matthew Siegler, an astronomer with the Planetary Science Institute in Arizona, told The Daily Beast.
But Culberson, an 18-year veteran of the House of Representatives, lost his re-election bid in 2018. Funding for the lander dwindled in the 2019 budget. “The money clearly is not going to be there,” Siegler said. Spokespersons for the House science committee didn’t respond to The Daily Beast’s requests for comment.
It’s unlikely NASA will make a hard push for more money for Clipper. “You could place the blame of that on the moon, where the current administration is advocating money be spent,” Siegler noted, referring to Earth’s own moon. The Trump administration is desperate to land astronauts on Earth’s moon by 2024, the final full year of a possible second term for Trump.
The moon mission involves several new spacecraft and could end up costing $30 billion. NASA’s entire annual budget has been around $20 billion in recent years. A NASA spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment.
It’s possible that, once the Trump-inspired moon mania fades, NASA could mount a fresh mission to Europa—one with a water-collecting lander. Siegler guessed that could happen around 2035, at the soonest.
Of course, by the 2030s, an additional Europa mission might be competing with manned missions to Mars. It might also run afoul of a possible mission to Enceladus, a moon of Saturn that also appears to be capable of supporting life.
“It’s worth noting that Europa is, in some sense, in competition with Enceladus, which also has geysers from an underground ocean,” Shostak said. “Maybe even more than Europa.”