“E.T. phone home ” is a phrase we all know, it comes from the most famous of all extraterrestrials, the one imagined by Steven Spielberg in the eponymous film. Science fiction has always taken up the question of extraterrestrial life, without worrying about the scientific realities that ensued. Whether it’s the movie Avatar, or Star Wars, the presence of life is only flourishing in distant galaxies. An idea that science is trying to put to the test.
Indeed, life could be much closer to us than popular culture would have us believe. If not as developed and impressive as the Jedi, life forms may well exist within our own solar system, a revolution in the way we view the universe and understand our existence.
The planet that has been attracting attention for many years now is Jupiter. If the gas giant known for its red spot is a poor host for life, its moons are the ideal candidates. With a total of 79 balls of rock orbiting Jupiter, we are spoilt for choice, to say the least. Among the many candidates, only a few have caught the attention of scientists: Europa, Enceladus and Ganymede are indeed three very interesting contenders from a scientific point of view to host life. It has been proven that all three have liquid water on their surface, a sine qua non for conceiving life as we know it.
Europa Clipper: the answer to our questions
In view of the growing scientific interest around the moons of Jupiter, a new scientific mission should be carried out in the next few years near them. Europa Clipper, that’s its name, will have to return as close as possible to the gas giant at the beginning of the 2030s, the mission should last a little more than 3 years. The project, launched in 2015, should take off in 2024 aboard a SpaceX rocket, the private company of Elon Musk having been chosen by NASA a few weeks ago for this important launch.
The main mission, and also the most promising for this 6-ton probe, will be the use of its radar. Indeed, the latter should be able to search in the depths of these moons-ocean, under the thick coat of ice that blocks our view for the moment. As its name suggests, the probe should focus its mission around Jupiter’s moon “Europa”, one of the best candidates to host life.
If the probe is currently being designed, it is part of NASA’s priority projects and should see the light of day in the coming years. In any case, the American space agency continues to load its calendar, and if 2024 goes as she hopes, it will be historic.
In search of life
The last probe to circle Europe was Galileo in 2003. At the time, the results were encouraging, but the technology available did not allow it to penetrate the thick mantle of ice that covers the entire moon. With Europa Clipper, NASA is giving itself every chance of discovering traces of life. The JPL (jet propulsion laboratory) should be in charge of building the “MISE”, a spectrometer capable of mapping the distribution of organic materials on this moon, in other words, to say whether or not life exists on Europa.
If the probe answers this question in the affirmative, then our overall view of the world around us will be changed forever. We may have proof by 2031 or 2032 that we are not alone in the universe, a discovery at least as important to our understanding of our world as that of Newton or Galileo.
If for a long time we have imagined life as an exception on the scale of the Universe, an accumulation of rare events that eventually makes a planet or a moon habitable and inhabited, life could in fact be much more commonplace than we think. If even within our own small solar system, lost in the heart of a galaxy with billions of identical counterparts, we can find life, then it must populate the four corners of space. All we have to do is find it.