January 19, 2018 – Jupiter’s moon, Europa, may look like a desolate snow cone. But NASA and Arizona State University scientists believe a closer look at its icy surface could reveal a life-friendly habitat exists beyond planet Earth.
To confirm that suspicion, NASA plans to launch the Europa Clipper spacecraft in the 2020s. It will survey the moon with a suite of science instruments, including the Europa Thermal Emission Imaging System, a powerful sensor suite designed to detect relatively warm ice that may have recently erupted onto the moon’s surface. Under an $11.5 million contract, Raytheon will outfit the system with key thermal imaging capabilities.
“This sensor will give us the critical, high-resolution imagery and data that scientists need to detect liquid water, which may lead to evidence for microbial life for the first time outside of Earth,” said Christy Doyle, general manager for Raytheon Vision Systems.
Data gathered from the Galileo spacecraft flybys around the turn of the century and even more recent indications of activity observed by The Hubble Space Telescope points to evidence of water plumes on Europa— and a potential vast ocean beneath its frozen surface containing twice as much liquid water as that of Earth’s.
The sensor will use uncooled, microbolometer technology to detect infrared wavelengths from heat sources and develop that data into HD-quality imagery.
“The E-THEMIS instrument will also provide data that can be used to assess potential landing sites for a lander on future missions,” said Paolo Masini, Raytheon senior fellow and the program’s technical director.
The sensors will also have to contend with intense radiation levels.
“The radiation environment around Jupiter is many times more difficult than what Earth-observing satellites typically face,” Masini said. “So special care must be taken in the design to be sure that the sensor will survive the conditions and still be able to report highly accurate, radiometric data on the surface conditions of Europa.”
Raytheon sensors have served on other planetary missions. Arizona State University’s Thermal Emission Spectrometer flew on NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor mission, and mini-TES instruments were used on the Mars Spirit and Opportunity Rovers.
But Europa Clipper’s search for a life-friendly world holds much more promise.
“Scientists on previous Mars missions estimated that there was a one in a thousand chance of finding evidence of past or present life on Mars,” Masini said. “With Europa’s vast liquid-water ocean, the chances of life existing there today could potentially be much greater.”