[Note: This item comes from friend David Rosenthal. DLH]
Inside NASA’s daring $8 billion plan to finally find extraterrestrial life
A congressman, a billionaire movie director, and an unparalleled mission of discovery.
By ERIC BERGER
Mar 7 2017
DEEP IN THE SOLAR SYSTEM—A darkness has spread over the grim, airless field of ice that threatens to swallow us. Night has come to the nightmare glacier. But then we see the shiny spacecraft, with its four gangly legs extending outward to find purchase on the jagged ice. Within, scientific instruments begin to blink on, one by one. Soon, they will start sniffing for any hint of life on this most alien and mysterious of worlds in the Solar System: the Jovian moon Europa.
Through the HoloLens each of us wears, we watch this simulation of what might happen about 15 years from now on the icy, forbidding moon. The otherworldly illusion is shattered when a voice booms out; it’s John Culberson, a conservative Republican politician from Texas. He wants to know what happens if one of the blinking instruments fail. Not to worry, he is told, all of the spacecraft systems are redundant. “Good,” Culberson replies. “The immensity of what you’re doing is too important in human history. You don’t want to miss this chance.”
Europa truly does represent a singular chance. Crossing 800 million kilometers with a sizable, robust payload will require vast sums of money—there won’t be a second chance. But Europa represents a gamble in another sense, too. No one knows whether NASA will discover a frozen, dead world far from the Sun or if the organization will make the most profound of discoveries just below the ice.
During the last decade, NASA has recast its human and robotic space exploration programs around the search for life both in our Solar System and beyond. Much of this effort has focused on Mars, which is relatively close to Earth and may have harbored life in the past. Culberson has pushed the agency further to seek extant life. He and a lot of scientists believe the best place to find extraterrestrial life in the Solar System lies in deep oceans below Europa’s inhospitable surface.
During the last five years, Culberson has bull-headedly shoved about half a billion dollars through Congress to give NASA’s elite planetary probe scientists and engineers a chance to land on Europa. Now, in late February, he has come to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in the hills just north of Los Angeles, to visit the wizards here who conceived the Voyager spacecraft, developed Cassini and Galileo, and landed Curiosity on Mars. What progress, he wondered, had they made toward teasing out the secrets of Europa?
Quite a lot, actually. During more than five hours of briefings in “Left Field,” a room named for its encouragement of ideas out of left field, scientists and engineers explained to Culberson how they plan to tackle the challenges of landing on Europa. A year ago they weren’t even certain it could be done, but now they’re increasingly confident.
“We’ve looked at most of the things that used to really bother us,” said Dara Sabahi, a lead engineer on the project. “There were a lot of gotchas, but today I can say that—and I don’t say this lightly—we are confident we can make this work. I believe the technologies are in reach, and the risks that bothered us are manageable.”
Notably, the JPL team thinks it has solved the vexing problem of planetary protection, the concern that any stray microbes from Earth could contaminate Europa’s ecosystem. The solution has come straight out of the pages of science fiction—the lander mission will be the first interplanetary spacecraft to carry a self-destruct mechanism.
Before launch, the spacecraft’s exterior will bake at high temperatures to remove all contaminants, while the delicate scientific instruments inside are shielded. Then after the spacecraft reaches Europa and finishes its work, an incinerator will burn the scientific innards at 500 degrees Celsius. “What a glorious way to go out after discovering life for the first time on another world,” Culberson says, approvingly.