Planetary Science by Space Missions
Exploring the Subsurface Ocean of Europa: The Europa Clipper Mission
In May 2015 the NASA announced a flagship mission to explore the habitability of the Jovian ice moon Europa that harbours a huge sub-surface ocean. One of the 10 instruments is a Surface Dust Analyser (SUDA), which will carry out key measurements to characterize the composition of the icy moons surface as well as its sub-surface ocean. Surface ejecta, generated by the ambient micro-meteoroid bombardment that erodes the surface, are naturally present on all atmosphereless moons like Europa - they are enshrouded in clouds of ballistic dust particles. In situ mass spectrometric analysis of these grains impacting onto SUDA reveals their composition as characteristic samples of Europa's surfaces at each flyby. The particles can be traced back to their point of origin, linking them to surface features and allows compositional mapping with in situ techniques.
Recent observations with the Hubble space telescope indicated plume activity on Europa. This would allow the Europa clipper to direct sample fresh material emerging from the sub-surface in a similar way as Cassini-Huygens did at Enceladus.
SUDA is lead by LASP at the University of Colorado in Boulder and supported by our research group in Heidelberg. The spacecraft is scheduled for a launch in 2022 arriving at Jupiter a few years later. As a Co-Investigator the head of our group, Dr. Frank Postberg, is in charge of the spectral analysis of Europa’s surface and subsurface material. In the near future I will start to establish an extensive spectrum-library of analogue materials with the laser-assisted mass spectrometer described below.