Visitors to the Griffith Observatory look at a display explaining light in the universe. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

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NASA’s Europa Clipper: Probing the depths for signs of extraterrestrial life

This astonishing spacecraft may just about completely change our understanding of life in space.
<a href="https://highschool.latimes.com/author/bran100607/" target="_self">Brandon Chang</a>

Brandon Chang

November 3, 2023

Since long before ventures into space have been possible for humankind, humanity has looked for signs of extraterrestrial life. Recently, a moon of Jupiter named Europa has been garnering increased attention. Beneath the icy surface of Europa exists an ocean of salty water – which is what scientists at NASA are seeking to investigate with the Europa Clipper.

Looking back at our own evolutionary origins, water has played a major role in the development of land organisms. From our extent of knowledge, life exists wherever there is water. This life may come in numerous forms, from fish to bacteria invisible to the naked eye. Researchers aren’t yet sure what form of life, if present at all, is below Europa’s top layer– and this is precisely what NASA’s Europa Clipper is being designed to find out.

Set to launch on October 10, 2024, the Europa Clipper has one main goal: to “determine if Europa harbors conditions suitable for life.”

Scientists currently believe that Europa contains more salty water than all of Earth’s oceans combined. If conditions for life on Europa prove to be met, this could be a major breakthrough in the way humans perceive life. For Europa to be considered habitable however, a number of requirements other than the salty ocean below its surface must be met.

For one, Europa needs to contain the essential building blocks of life. These include elements such as carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and sulfur, just to name a few. Additionally, energy needs to exist on this moon in order to sustain life – the strong gravity of Jupiter creates tides on Europa which act to stretch and tug it. This stretching and tugging of the tides produces energy in the form of heat.

Robert Pappalardo, project scientist for the Europa Clipper mission, said that “if there is life in Europa, it almost certainly was completely independent from the origin of life on Earth… that would mean the origin of life must be pretty easy throughout the galaxy and beyond.”

Discovery of suitable living conditions or microorganisms underneath its icy surface could completely revolutionize the concept of life as we know it.

With just around one year left until liftoff, the Europa Clipper promises an exciting mission, and the possibilities of discoveries are infinite.