Thinking there could be life on one of Jupiter's moons, NASA scientists are working on a plan to send robots to begin studying it.
Jim Green, NASA's planetary science chief, said there's no reason to think there isn't life on Europa, the sixth-closest moon to the planet Jupiter and the sixth-largest moon in the solar system. And he can't wait to find out.
NASA administrator Charles Bolden said this week that the space agency's 2015 proposed budget includes funding for a robotic mission to Europa. Green noted that NASA hopes to launch the first of a series of robotic missions to Europa in the mid 2020s.
"We've been thinking about Europa for quite a few years. Then in December things had to change," Green told Computerworld. "The ocean there is protected by an ice shell and there's no reason that we believe life couldn't have been generated on Europa. The real search for aliens is in this solar system. To determine if life exists outside the bounds of Earth's gravity, it's really in places like Mars and Europa and maybe Titan."
If NASA does find life -- whether it's microbial or other life forms -- that will have major repercussions on what we expect about life outside the bounds of Earth.
"If we can find life there, either past life or current life, then that tells us life has to be everywhere in this galaxy," said Green. "It's an extreme environment, but not as extreme as we think. It's in a temperature range that life, as we know it, is abundant but does it have the right chemicals to create life and feed life? There's no reason to think that the evolution of life in that environment didn't just take off."
In December, the Hubble Space Telescope spotted a huge water plume emanating from the south pole of Europa. Green said it wasn't a small geyser like Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park, which shoots up 90 to 180 feet in the air.
The geyser coming off Europa shoots up more than 124 miles.
Green explained that Europa is covered by an ice shell. However, the strong tidal pull from Jupiter has melted some of that ice and created a deep ocean below it. Europa's ocean, which has hydro thermal vents, is about 62 miles deep and covers the entire moon. That's about 10 times deeper than the ocean here on Earth and it holds twice as much water than is found here.
"It's a really dynamic region," said Green. "It's a fabulous water world. We believe life probably started in water on this planet. Having billions of years of water on Europa, tells us there's a good chance there's life on Europa now."
It's not clear what NASA will first send to Europa.
It could be a spacecraft similar to Cassini that will repeatedly fly past the moon, sending back information about it. However, the first mission also could be a spacecraft that will go into orbit around Europa, studying its surface, the geyser and gases.
After that mission, whatever it might entail, sends back data, NASA will send another robot -- one that will likely land on Europa's ice shell.
"We're in the process of studying it," said Green. "Now that we're seeing the plumes, we have new ideas we never had before. We're in the pre-formulation phase. We're bringing the ideas together and figuring out what that first mission might be. There'll be a series of robotic missions."
Using current rocket technology, it would probably take eight to nine years for a spacecraft to reach Europa. However, if NASA uses one of the new heavy-lift rockets it's been working on, that trip could be shortened to two years.
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.