US astronomers looking for life in the solar system believe that Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter, which has an ocean, is much more promising than desert-covered Mars, which is currently the focus of the US government’s attention.

“Europa is the most likely place in our solar system beyond Earth to possess .... life,” said Robert Pappalardo, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

“And it is the place we should be exploring now that we have a concept mission we think is the right one to get there for an affordable cost,” he continued.

“Europa is the most promising in terms of habitability because of its relatively thin ice shelf and an ocean ... And we know there are oxidants on the surface of Europa.”

At the request of NASA, a proposed mission to explore Europa was revised to significantly reduce the cost, the scientist told the media on the sidelines of an annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) underway here.

As a result of this review, the JPL and the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland developed a new exploration project named Clipper with a total coast of two billion dollars minus the launch.

Following the successful example of Cassini, a probe that explored Titan, a moon of Saturn, a spacecraft would orbit Jupiter and conduct numerous close flybys of Europa.

“That way we can get effectively global coverage of Europa by doing many flybys,” Pappalardo argued. “And that can do outstanding science — not quite as good as an orbiter, but not that bad — for half the cost, which is two billions dollars over the life of the mission excluding the launch.”

If the plan is approved, Clipper could be launched by 2021 and take three to six years to reach Europa. By comparison, it takes six months to reach Mars.

But NASA already announced at the end of 2012 that there will be no funds for the Clipper mission in the current atmosphere of budgetary cuts, he said.

(This article was published on February 16, 2013)
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