17–19 September 2018
Hyatt Regency Orlando, Orlando, Florida

NASA Edges Closer to Seeking Signs of Life in Far-Off Oceans

Posted: 14 September 2016, 9:10 a.m. EDT

Part 1 of 2

Part 2 of 2

Panelists: Brent Sherwood, manager, Solar System Mission Formulation, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory; Brian Cooke, Europa project system engineer, JPL; Tom Cwik, manager, Space Technology Program, JPL; Mike Gazarik, vice president of engineering, Ball Aerospace; Morgan Cable, imaging spectroscopy technologist, JPL, and deputy project scientist, Enceladus Life Finder, NASA

by Debra Werner, Aerospace America contributing writer

Within 25 years, NASA could send robotic spacecraft to tunnel through the ice on Jupiter’s moon Europa or other distant planets or moons to search for signs of life.

“This is doable in our lifetime with enough priority and oomph by all of us to make it happen,” said Tom Cwik, manager of the Space Technology Program at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, speaking Sept. 13 at the “Icy Moons and Ocean Worlds” forum at AIAA SPACE 2016 in Long Beach, California.

NASA’s Outer Planets Assessment Group, a scientific advisory panel, is creating a Roadmap to Ocean Worlds, a document to chart the space agency’s priorities for investigating planets and moons where liquid water exists or may have existed in the past. That work will feed into the next planetary science decadal survey, said Morgan Cable, an imaging spectroscopy technologist at JPL and deputy project scientist on a proposed NASA Discovery mission to look for life on Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

“We have this range of objects that can teach us about the conditions in which life may or may not arise,” said Brent Sherwood, manager of the Solar System Mission Formulation at JPL. “Of course we want to find life. As scientists, it’s equally interesting to explore places where based on everything we know, life ought to be but may not be.”

Europa is a prime example with its potential liquid ocean in contact with a rocky silicate floor. NASA is developing the Europa Clipper, a spacecraft laden with instruments that Congress directed NASA to launch on the heavy-lift Space Launch System in 2022. If all goes as planned, the Europa Clipper will spend three years making at least 42 passes by the icy moon while its instruments look for plumes and organic material, study Europa’s magnetic field, and gather imagery with both wide angle and narrow angle cameras.

“We are investigating habitability and looking for ingredients of life: water, chemistry and energy,” said Brian Cooke, Europa project system engineer at JPL. “If we find those on Europa, we will be able to design missions to go and look for life.”

To find life on Europa and other ocean worlds, NASA will need technology that is far more advanced than its current systems. Missions will need to operate for months or even years without direction from controllers on the ground, Cwik said.

NASA also will need new power systems, he said.

“If there is one area that limits what we are able to do, it’s power,” Cwik said. “We will have to look at different forms of radio isotope power, which we will be able to use in different modes.”

On Europa, for example, NASA will need to melt through kilometers of ice to look for life in the ocean. That means the spacecraft’s electrical power systems will need to be capable of supplying thermal heating, as well, he added.

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Dates to Remember

  • Abstract Deadline: 08 Feb 2018
  • Manuscript Deadline: 16 Aug 2018
  • Early Bird Reg Deadline: 27 Aug 2018
  • Cancellation Deadline: 04 Sep 2018

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