Life on Europa? NASA Charts Mission to Jupiter's Icy Moon

A new mosaic made from images taken by NASA's Galileo spacecraft in the late 1990's is shown of the surface of Jupiter's icy moon, Europa, as it looms large in this newly-reprocessed, higher resolution color view in this handout provided by NASA November 24, 2014. Reuters

NASA may soon be venturing to Europa, the icy moon orbiting Jupiter, and the reason is extraterrestrial: reports that scientists aim to scour the clouds of water vapor that sometimes billow from the moon's southern region for any possible signs of life, and they hope to study Europa's ice-covered ocean as well.

The Hubble space telescope first captured images of the water vapor in late 2012, and some scientists believe the plumes flow directly from the salty ocean that lies beneath Europa's glacial crust.

As National Geographic notes, the ocean is humanity's most concrete chance at finding life outside of Earth--thus far. Such is the desire to do so that dozens of astrobiologists gathered at NASA's Ames Research Center recently to brainstorm ideas on how life could potentially be found on Europa, and to discuss challenges that may present themselves along the way.

The Europa exploration mission has been brewing for some time, but didn't seem plausible until early February, when the White House budget requested $18.5 billion for NASA. The funding has yet to be approved by Congress, but officials from the space agency are confident it will happen. "We are going to do a Europa mission, and I'm very excited about that," said former astronaut and now NASA associate administrator John Grunsfeld, in an interview with National Geographic. "I think it's unlikely that Congress is going tell us, 'No, NASA shouldn't be doing a Europa mission.' Very unlikely."

NASA is one step ahead, as it has already been hammering down a design for a probe that could make a series of "flyby" missions over the course of three and a half years. The design in question is the Europa Clipper, a probe capable of orbiting the moon and taking detailed photographs of the surface and charting the crust covering the mysterious ocean. If utilized, the Clipper probe would first make an excursion to Jupiter, and from there make a total of 45 "flybys" around Europa.

But there's still a ways to go: Scientists have been told to get creative, as Europa's tricky surface may pose unprecedented problems. The water vapor plumes are periodic, and scientists will need to bank on their appearance in order to test them for the presence of organisms. And what kinds of organisms would they be--certainly not green aliens, but perhaps cellular matter? It's impossible to know at this point.

Also, as reports, the earliest any probe could depart for Europa is 2022. And given the current model for the rockets that could launch it into space, it's likely that the Clipper wouldn't reach Jupiter until 2030.

Although there's much to explore on the moon, NASA officials have emphasized that the main goal of the mission will be to determine whether Europa's atmosphere allows it to sustain life underneath its icy exterior, which would be a triumph in itself.