Europa is one of Jupiter’s moons. It’s about the size of our moon. Europa is a very special moon in our solar system because it might be able to support living things. Beneath its icy crust, there could be an ocean with twice as much water as there is in Earth’s oceans.
We know a lot about Europa from NASA’s Galileo mission, which visited Jupiter over 10 years ago. We have also taken pictures of it with the Hubble Space Telescope. But now NASA plans to send a spacecraft, a machine that flies in space, right to Europa to learn more. It will loop around Jupiter and fly by Europa 45 times over three years. It will get as close as 16 miles (25 kilometers) above the icy surface.
What will the spacecraft do when it gets there?
The spacecraft will have nine machines that will make different measurements of Europa. Using cameras, radar, and other devices, we will learn all kinds of new things about this interesting moon.
We’ll learn more about the surface and get detailed pictures of it. We’ll find out how thick the crust is and how much water is under it. We will even be able to measure how deep and salty the ocean is. How warm and cold are different parts of the moon? We’ll find that out too. The spacecraft will also measure the magnetic field around Europa.
Even though the spacecraft isn’t landing on Europa, we can still learn about very small things too. The spacecraft can measure the very thin atmosphere there. It will find out how much water and other particles are floating around in it. We can even find out what kinds of salt and other small molecules are in Europa’s ocean.
There is a lot to be excited about, but we’ll have to wait a while to learn all these things. The mission will launch in the 2020s, and it will take years for the spacecraft to reach Europa. Until then we can look at all the beautiful pictures we have of this icy moon and think about what we’ll find there.
Europa is far from the sun, but it’s warmed by heat from friction. Find out how. Visit http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/europa.