PSI researchers are on the science teams of three of nine instruments chosen to be part of an upcoming mission to explore Jupiter’s icy moon Europa, NASA announced today.

The Europa mission, slated to launch in the 2020s, will orbit Jupiter while performing 45 Europa flybys over a three-year period with altitudes ranging from 25 kilometers to 1,700 kilometers, NASA officials said during a press conference.

“The big question this mission needs to answer: is Europa habitable?” said Curt Niebur, Europa program scientist, during the briefing. “The instruments could find indications of life, but they are not life detectors.”

PSI Senior Scientist Roger Clark is a Co-Investigator on the Mapping Image Spectrometer for Europa (MISE), which will probe the composition of Europa, identifying and mapping the distribution of organics, salts, acid hydrates, water ice phases and other materials to determine the habitability of Europa’s ocean. 

“Europa’s ice has been broken and materials from down below have come to the surface,” Clark said. “MISE will help us understand what the composition of the ocean might be.” 

PSI Senior Scientists Amy Barr Mlinar and Candice Hansen are Co-Investigators on the Europa Imaging System (EIS) instrument, which features wide and narrow angle cameras that will map 90 percent of Europa’s surface at 50 meter resolution.

Mlinar is also a Co-Investigator on the Radar for Europa Assessment and Sounding: Ocean to Near-surface (REASON) instrument, a dual frequency ice penetrating radar designed to characterize and sound Europa’s icy crust to reveal the hidden structure of Europa’s icy shell and potential water within.

“What interests me the most is getting a close-up look at Europa’s surface, in particular, chaos regions and bands, which may be sites of surface/sub-surface exchange,” said Mlinar on EIS. “There were a lot of unanswered questions after the Galileo mission, and we have waited a long time to start planning a return visit.”

“We have only seen a small fraction of Europa’s fascinating surface at high resolution,” Hansen said. “I am looking forward to being surprised!”

Galileo imaged about 10 percent of Europa’s surface with a best resolution of about 200 meters.

REASON is designed to characterize the distribution of any shallow subsurface water, search for an ice-ocean interface and characterize the ice shell’s global thermophysical structure, investigate processes governing material exchange among the ocean, ice shell, surface, and atmosphere – including plume activity – and constrain the amplitude and phase of gravitational tides, Mlinar said. REASON will also characterize the safety and scientific value of candidate landing sites for a possible future lander mission. 

“REASON is a very important part of the overall investigation strategy for Europa because it is the best-suited to look at the subsurface of Europa, where the distribution of shallow water, cracks, fault planes, and other features will help us understand how Europa’s ice shell works” Mlinar said. “We have been waiting a long time to see beneath Europa’s surface.” 

NASA selected nine of 33 instrument proposals submitted for the mission.