The Europa Clipper is a spacecraft under construction set to launch in 2023 to orbit Europa, one of Jupiter’s most intriguing moons. During its mission, the orbiter will observe and analyze Europa, to determine whether the giant ice ball possess all the ideal necessities to harbor life.

The Europa Clipper rocks a Batman-equivalent load-out of gadgets. First off, it is highly radiation-tolerant, capable of withstanding Jupiter’s radiation bombardment as the spacecraft performs its flybys and observations. Equipped with cameras and spectrometers, The Bat-Clipper will capture high resolution images of the moon’s surface to determine its composition. Using radar, it will measure the thickness of the icy shell composing its surface and attempt to discover any traces of subsurface lakes similar to those found underneath the ice sheets in Antarctica. The orbiter’s magnetometer will detect the strength of Europa’s magnetic field, allowing researchers to determine how deep and salty the moon’s ocean is. Additional tools will measure the gravity of the moon as well, allowing a definitive confirmation of the existence of a subsurface ocean. Clipper will also utilize a thermal instrument to scour the frozen surface for water eruptions and better determine the thin composition of the moon’s atmosphere.

Europa remains the best candidate for finding life in our Solar System due to the probability of a liquid ocean underneath its surface. On Earth, wherever we find water, we find life, leading scientists to wonder if this logic translates to other worlds outside our planet. In 2012, the Hubble Space Telescope discovered potential evidence of water plumes erupting from Europa’s surface, and the Europa Clipper plans to fly through right those plumes to gather much data and learn the composition of the moon’s interior. These plumes would aid in confirming the existence of the ocean, and help scientists understand the moon’s composition and chemical makeup of the frozen ocean world, laying the foundation for follow up missions that may one day drill through the layers of ice, and ultimately determine the moon’s habitability.

Europa, the sixth largest moon and best candidate for the presence of extraterrestrial life in the Solar System. Photo: 1996 Galileo Spacecraft

One might consider what kind of life could survive on a frozen ice world with a subterranean ocean. Perhaps some monstrous ice Megaladon? A civilization of cephalopods? Water monsters like those in Star Wars: Phantom Menace? Or perhaps some type of living reef or a variety of life beyond our wildest imaginations? Fossils on Earth reveal a plethora of ancient aquatic life, some massive beasts coming straight out of science fiction. It begs the question: what could possibly exist out there, or in the event of similar Earth-like creatures, could Europa share some responsibility for the existence of life on our planet? So many puzzling questions, like a Matrix-style hallway of doors waiting to open, forever fueling our curiosity.

The Europa Clipper marks the first phase of this amazing endeavor for answering one life’s greatest mysteries. The craft will perform 45 flybys during the duration of its mission at varying altitudes ranging from 1700 to 16 miles away from the moon’s surface. Are we alone in the Universe? A deep of study of Europa may very well hold the answers.

Artist depiction of Europa’s surface, bombarded by radiation from Jupiter capable of destroying potential molecules on the moon’s surface that could provide evidence for the presence of life. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech