NASA's plans to study Jupiter's moon Europa are underway, with a projected launch date in the mid-2020s.
Science has long suspected that extraterrestrial life must exist in the universe, but good luck finding out for sure. Most planets and stellar bodies in our solar system - while very interesting in their own right - show few signs that life is thriving at all. One rare exception is Europa, a moon of Jupiter that might just have an absolutely massive subsurface ocean filled with life forms. Of course, since Europa is 628 million kilometers from Earth, swinging by to find out isn't easy. But NASA is moving ahead with mission plans all the same, with a projected launch sometime in the mid-2020s.
The mission was discussed at this week's State of NASA address, where administrator Charles Bolden elaborated on the proposed 2016 budget. "Looking to the future," Bolden said, "we're planning a mission to explore Jupiter's fascinating moon Europa, selecting instruments this spring and moving toward the next phase of our work." As detailed in the budget, NASA plans to dedicate a total of $30 million to the initiative. For context, the Mars Curiosity Rover cost a grand total of $2.5 billion.
NASA's likely mission plan is to build a probe called the Europa Clipper, which would orbit Jupiter and make 45 flybys of the moon. It's not the only route NASA could take - the space agency did develop plans for a Europa Lander back in 2011. The trouble is, a radiation field near Europa runs the risk of damaging the probe if it made a permanent landing.
If all goes well, NASA would launch its Europa mission in the mid-2020s, but it won't be the only space agency to do so. The European Space Agency is developing its own mission - the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) - to launch in 2022. Not only would that increase the chances of confirming life on Europa, it also might signal one of the first honest-to-goodness space races since the Moon Landing.
In short, within the next decade we might finally know if alien life exists with our solar system. What a great time to be excited for space travel!