Scientists constantly search for life on other planets. One of the better-known ones was the Viking. Sadly, it is well-known because it was a significant failure. In fact, because of this particular mission, NASA scientists decided to alter their approach to searching for alien life.
Recent findings are pointing to Europa, Jupiter’s icy moon, as the ideal place to search for alien life. In light of this, NASA has recently revealed plans for a mission to land on the Jupiter’s moon as early as 2031.
The mission has not been scheduled yet, but Congress has declared that it needs to happen. Due to the fact that the mission is still in its early stages, everything is subject to change. Still, it has been declared that one of the mission’s primary goals is to search for evidence of life on the icy moon.
This is an interesting change in the nature of NASA’s missions since the main goal of most missions until now has been to determine whether there is any evidence of habitability, or whether the planet can support life. NASA’s track record with these missions has been less than stellar.
Vikings on Mars
This is where the Viking mission comes into play. In the 1970s the Viking landers set out to search for life on Mars. The results they were able to send back to Earth are debated to this day. One of the three instruments used in the mission was able to find a potential sign of life, while the other two were unable to find any kind of organic life forms. As a result of these findings, NASA has put any further search for life on Mars on pause.
Scientists now believe that the Viking landers really could have found life on Mars but, due to the perchlorate compounds found in the Martian soil, those organic molecules were probably broken down, and as a result unrecognizable to the instruments used in the mission.
If there was one thing to take away from the Viking missions it’s that you cannot just land on a new planet and start searching for life forms. You need to thoroughly research the planet’s environment. Without extensive preparation, the findings can get skewed. Careful planning is imperative if we are ever going to find life on a new planet.
Can Europa Support Life?
Underneath the icy surface of Jupiter’s moon scientist found a large inner ocean. The theory behind potential life on Europa is that on the seafloor of this ocean there is water that contains enough nutrients to support basic organic life forms. These life forms may be similar to those found in Earth’s deepest oceans. The issue is that due to the radiation present on the moon’s surface there is a possibility that the organic life forms have been broken down.
Due to the hostile nature of Europa’s surface environment, there is little chance of it containing any kind of life forms. So the idea behind the Europa mission’s is that the landers can gather samples from 10 centimeters below the surface. The lander contains a microscope and all necessary instruments for a detailed search to find organics in the samples. Determining whether there are lipids and amino acids, as well as other organic materials is also highly important.
The landers ability to find inorganic compounds is also of high importance. The scientists performing the research cannot focus on one aspect during these missions. All findings need to be taken into account in order to form a conclusive and definitive report about the probability of Europa supporting any kind of life forms.
What is Life?
After the end of the Viking mission, the entire notion of what it means to find life on a new planet has been overhauled. To this day scientists have not come up with a definition for life on which they can all agree upon. Finding life in a place other than Earth may help with the definition. At least that is what the scientists are hoping for.
During the months of April and May in 2017, two town hall meetings were held to discuss all potential outcomes of the Europa missions. Also, this is the first time the scientists involved in the missions discussed what qualifies as evidence for life.
The Europa missions are of huge importance. Looking for life is not the only thing the landers must accomplish. The research is important for future scientific endeavors.
As stated above, the lander has a secondary mission related to finding evidence whether the Europa moon is inhabitable at all. Checking whether the ocean underneath the moon’s surface is able to support life opens up the same discussions for the same research in other similar oceans like the Enceladus and the Ganymede.
Also, scientists want to determine how deep the ocean on Europa is exactly. Is it near the surface or is it buried deep beneath the ice? Additionally, they need to determine whether there are pockets of liquid anywhere closer to the surface if the ocean is deep beneath the ice.
In the end, the mission needs to scope out the surroundings of Europa in order to determine future actions available to the research teams. Landers with drills may be sent to the moon in order to perform a more detailed search of its ocean.
With the information gathered from the Viking and the technological advancements since that mission, the scientists are much better prepared for the Europa mission and this gives them a higher chance to finally discover life in the solar system other than the one found on Earth.