NASA’s Mission to Europa

Let's Talk About NASA's Mission to Europa

The search for life in the Solar System is about the hunt for water. Wherever we find liquid water on Earth, we find life. I’m talking everywhere. In the most briny, salty pools in Antarctica, in the hottest hot springs in Yellowstone, under glaciers, and kilometers deep underground.

So we go searching for liquid water in the Solar System.

You might be surprised to learn that Jupiter’s moon Europa has the most water in the entire Solar System. If you took all the water on Earth, collected it into a big sphere, it would measure almost 1,400 kilometers across.

Europa’s water would measure nearly 1,800 kilometers.All that water exists in a layer around Europa, encased in a layer of ice. How thick? We don’t know.

Is there life down there? We don’t know. You can say there might be, and it wouldn’t be untrue. However, if you say there isn’t, that’s way less interesting for clickbait purposes. Whenever we don’t know the answers to fundamental and intriguing questions like that, it’s time to send a mission.

Good news! An actual mission to Europa is in the works right now. In 2015, NASA approved the development of an orbiter mission to Europa. If all goes well, and nothing gets cancelled, a spacecraft will launch in the 2020s, carrying 9 instruments to Europa. Most will be familiar cameras, mass spectrometers, and the like, to study the surface of Europa to a high level of resolution. Over the course of 45 flybys, the spacecraft will get down as close as 25 kilometers and capture it with incredible resolution.

Perhaps the most exciting, and controversial instrument on board the new Europa Orbiter mission will be its ice-penetrating radar. Mission planners battled over installing a radar this sophisticated, as it will be an enormous drain on the orbiter’s power.

This for us is incredibly exciting. It will allow the spacecraft to map out the depth and thickness of Europa’s icy exterior. Is it thick or thin? Are there pockets of water trapped just below the surface, or is it tough shell that goes on for dozens of kilometers?

The worst case scenario is that the shell goes thicker than the radar can reach, and we won’t even know how far it goes.

Whatever happens, the Europa orbiter will be a boon to science, answer outstanding questions about the moon and the chances of finding life there.

We’re just getting started. What we really want to send is a lander. Because of the intense radiation from Jupiter, the Sun, and space itself, the surface of the ice on Europa would be sterilized. But dig down a few centimeters and you might find life that’s protected from the radiation.

A future Europa lander might be equipped with a heated drill attached to a tether. The lander would be have with a heat-generated radioisotope thermoelectric generator, like most of NASA’s big, outer Solar System spacecraft.

But in addition to using it for electricity, it’ll use the raw heat to help a tethered drill to grind through the ice a few meters and sample what’s down there.

Drilling more than a few meters is probably the stuff of science fiction. Russian scientists in Antarctica drilled for almost two decades to get through 4,000 meters of ice above Lake Vostok. Imagine trying to get through 100 kilometers of the stuff, on a distant world, with a robot.

But, since I’ve talked about moving the Sun, and terraforming the Moon, maybe I shouldn’t put any bounds on my imagination. Nuclear-powered Europa submarines will get us swimming with the singing Europan space whales in no time.

Europa is the best place to search the Solar System for life, and I’m excited to see what the upcoming Europa Orbiter mission turns up. And I’m even more excited about the possibility of any future lander missions.

Fraser Cain – Universe Today

3D Printers to Revolutionise Space Travel Within Two Year

3D printing
Astronaut Robert L. Satcher Jr. works outside the International Space Station in 2009. NASA hopes that 3D printing will allow astronauts to set up permanent habitats in the future. NASA/HANDOUT/REUTERS

NASA are aiming to introduce 3D printers into spacecraft within two years, allowing astronauts to set up permanent habitats on other planets and even print their own food.

In an interview with Newsweek, NASA’s 3D printing chief Niki Werkheiser says the technology will revolutionize space travel by allowing astronauts to be away from year for years on exploration missions without relying on ground control.

Current costs for space transportation are $10,000 per pound of mass. The development therefore has the potential to save millions of dollars as astronauts can travel light and print essentials on demand whilst in space.

NASA is currently developing its largest rocket yet, the Space Launch System (SLS). The SLS is due to make its first test flight in 2017 and Werkheiser says her team are working to get a 3D printer on-board.

So far, Werkheiser’s team at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama have produced several rocket components and a small wrench with the technology and yesterday the team announced the first successful print of a copper engine part for rockets.

However, they are working on much more exciting projects, including printing parts for a small shelter using substitutes for Martian and lunar sand – the theory being that astronauts could one day use the printers to build themselves habitats on extraterrestrial surfaces.

“The bottom line is being able to print anything you need in orbit. When we live on the ground, we don’t think much about running to Home Depot if something breaks but when you’re in space, even tiny things make a difference,” says Werkheiser.

The space agency is also funding a Texas-based company which is researching printing food, and has already produced prototype results in the form of printed pizza.

Other projects include developing a recycler which breaks down food wrappers into filament which the printer could convert into useful tools like circuit boards and batteries.

Werkheiser is optimistic that commercial applications of the technology means 3D printing in space will not be a thing of the future for long.

3D products are already being touted as offering a solution to homelessness and a means of creating human organs for those in need of transplants.

“The beautiful thing about 3D printing is that you’re going to see a pretty rapid evolution of commercial development. It’s going to happen,” says Werkheiser.

NASA has spent some $3m on the In-Space Manufacturing project which Werkheiser heads up.

The prototype 3D printer used on the International Space Station is the size of a small microwave and prints objects the size of an iPhone 6.

It produces objects by a process known as additive construction, using plastic filament as ink and constructing objects by a layering technique. Instructions are uplinked to the printer from ground control via email.

Werkheiser’s team are working on introducing metal filament to allow the printer to produce sturdier tools.

However, they are still working to overcome certain challenges posed by manufacturing in microgravity – for example, whether the layers of heated plastic form strong bonds when layered on top of each other in the absence of gravity.

Nevertheless, Werkheiser believes the technology will provide the key to allowing astronauts to live in space with the same freedom as on earth.

“This suite of capabilities will enable us to operate and live in space as we do on the ground. You need to get that autonomy in space and this is the secret sauce to getting there.”



Nasa’s Europa Mission take another step toward reality


NASA’s current plan for exploring Europa has just passed its first major review, proving that it’s feasible, unlike any of the previous ideas the agency’s scientists cooked up. America’s space agency has been developing mission ideas for Jupiter’s moon for years and even considered sending a lander to the satellite as recently as a year ago. Its scientists also once thought of sending a spacecraft to orbit Europa, but they ended up having to scrap that plan: the moon is bathed in Jupiter’s radiation, which would quickly kill any vessel that’s constantly exposed to it. So, instead of a lander or a Europa orbiter, NASA will send out a spacecraft in the 2020s designed to orbit Jupiter itself.

As the agency revealed in May, that spacecraft will be equipped with nine imaging, radar, magnenometry and spectometry tools to study the moon’s ice crust and the subsurface ocean that’s likely underneath it. The vehicle will fly by Europa 45 times during its mission period, and it will use every chance it gets to know more about the natural satellite. It’ll even be equipped to gather liquid/gas samples, in case the moon really does erupt plumes of water into space. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has been studying the mission formally known as the Clipper concept since 2011, with help from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL). Now, that concept is ready to enter development phase, and if all goes well, we’ll finally know if there’s life on Jupiter’s moon.





Is NASA one step closer to warp drive?



Potentially good news for those who want to zip around our solar system, and beyond, at speeds approaching that of light — and maybe even faster.

NASA, according to, is quietly claiming to have successfully tested a revolutionary new means of space travel that could one day allow for such insane speed, and to have done it in a hard vacuum like that of outer space for the first time.

The technology is based on the electromagnetic drive, or EM drive.

The science behind the EM drive is, well, complicated to say the least, but the basic idea is to convert electrical energy into thrust without propellant (the fuel in rockets), which should be impossible because it violates the law of conservation of momentum. That law states that momentum can only be changed by one of the forces described by Newton’s laws of motion — that’s where propellant normally comes in with traditional rockets.

If you want to dive into the “hows” and “whys” of all this, they’re discussed at length — by amateur enthusiasts as well as Ph.Ds and one of the NASA engineers actually working on the EM drive — on this forum.

Scientists from the US, UK and China have demonstrated the EM drive over the past 15 years or so, but it’s been controversial, since as mentioned above, the EM drive would seem to violate classical physics. NASA’s tests in conditions that mimic outer space, however, bring a new sense of possibility to electromagnetic propulsion.


If such a technology really does work, and can be implemented in future spacecraft, the implications include faster, cheaper and more efficient travel around our solar system and beyond, and could even be a stepping stone to faster-than-light travel. Yes Trekkers, I do mean a warp drive.

Imagine a vehicle carrying half a dozen passengers and luggage to the moon in about four hours, or a multi-generational trip at almost one-tenth the speed of light to reach Alpha Centauri in less than a century. The technology that makes this a reality could be in testing right now in Texas at the Johnson Space Center.

NASA did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but we reached out to Paul March, the engineer who has been working on the EM drive at JSC and sharing some of the results on the forum mentioned above. He told us:

“My work at Eagleworks (the lab at JSC where the EM drive is being tested) is just a continuation of my work tackling the fundamental problem that has been hindering manned spaceflight from the termination of the Apollo moon program. That being the availability of a robust and cost-effective power and propulsion technology that can break us loose from the shackles of the rocket equation.”

The technology will still require more tests to verify that it’s the real deal (none of this has gone through anything like a rigorous peer review, except for the pretty vigorous discussion on the above forum), and any spacecraft that ends up using an EM drive will basically need a substantial onboard nuclear power plant that will need to be developed for such a specific use in space.

The notion of flying through space atop a nuclear reactor shouldn’t be any more scary than all the radiation flying through space outside our hypothetical future moon taxi though, so don’t worry.



Ocean on Saturn moon resembles habitable lakes on Earth


Enceladus, shown in this recent image captured by the Cassini spacecraft, one of Saturn's moons (Reuters / NASA)


Enceladus, shown in this recent image captured by the Cassini spacecraft, one of Saturn’s moons (Reuters / NASA)

The newly-discovered subsurface ocean on Saturn’s icy moon of Enceladus is similar in makeup to some of the life-bearing salt lakes on Earth, a new US study suggested.

Astrobiologists believe this small moon is the best place to search for alien life in the Solar System.

The 505-kilometer-wide satellite is geologically active, with powerful geysers blasting through its ice shell.
Those geysers contain water which researchers suggest comes from an ocean located beneath the moon’s icy surface.

A new paper entitled ‘The pH of Enceladus,’ published on Wednesday in the journal ‪Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, looks into the chemical reactions that occur as Enceladus’ ocean water comes into contact with its rocky mantle.

The authors based their research on data gathered by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which has been orbiting Saturn since 2004.

They used mass-spectrometry measurements of the gases and ice grains in Enceladus’ plume to develop a model that estimates the saltiness and pH of the water in the moon’s inner ocean.

According to the US team’s findings, the ocean on Enceladus is likely salty and has a basic pH of 11 or 12, neutral pH being 7.

The same pH levels are found in ammonia-based glass-cleaning solutions, but some organisms on Earth are still capable of living in such conditions.

The high concentration of sodium chloride (NaCl) makes Enceladus’ ocean resemble terrestrial ‘soda lakes,’ such as ‪Mono Lake in California.


It’s good news for the those hunting alien life as a the fauna of Mono Lake includes brine shrimp and many different microbes.

The team’s model suggests that the ocean’s high pH is explained by serpentization, a process where metallic rocks from Enceladus’ upper surface are transformed into minerals due to contact with water.

Serpentization also leads to the production of molecular hydrogen (H2), which is a potential source of chemical energy for any life form in the ocean’s water, the paper said. ‪

“Molecular hydrogen can both drive the formation of organic compounds like amino acids that may lead to the origin of life, and serve as food for microbial life such as methane-producing organisms,” the study’s lead-author Christopher Glein, from the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, said in a statement.

Glein described serpentinization as a link between geological processes and biological processes on the moon.

“The discovery of serpentinization makes Enceladus an even more promising candidate for a separate genesis of life,” he stressed.

The hidden ocean was discovered on Enceladus earlier this year by Italian scientists from Sapienza University in Rome, who also analyzed Cassini data.

They said that active hydrothermal vents are likely to exist on Enceladus’ seafloor, providing conditions similar to those that gave rise to some of the first life forms on Earth.






NASA Is Seriously Revving Up The Search For Alien Life

  • NASA Is Seriously Revving Up The Search For Alien Life

A few weeks ago, NASA chief scientist Ellen Stofan made news by saying, “I think we’re going to have strong indications of life beyond Earth within a decade, and I think we’re going to have definitive evidence within 20 to 30 years.” It was a bold statement, but NASA is now backing those words with action.

The field of astrobiology just got a significant boost thanks an ambitious new alien-hunting initiative launched by NASA. Called NExSS, the initiative will bring together an impressive array of experts and teams across a variety of scientific fields.

The goal of NExSS — short for Nexus for Exoplanet System Science — is to improve our understanding of extrasolar planets, and how their stars and neighboring planets interact to support life. To achieve this, NASA has put together a multidisciplinary team consisting of earth scientists, planetary scientists, heliophysicists, and astrophysicists.

“This interdisciplinary endeavor connects top research teams and provides a synthesized approach in the search for planets with the greatest potential for signs of life,” noted Jim Green, NASA’s Director of Planetary science, in a statement. “The hunt for exoplanets is not only a priority for astronomers, it’s of keen interest to planetary and climate scientists as well.”

Since 1995, over 1,000 exoplanets have been discovered. Thousands of additional candidates are still waiting to be confirmed. The time has come, says NASA, for scientists to acquire a better understanding of these distant objects to learn how they might be capable of giving rise to life and how we might be able to detect their bio signatures from Earth using current and next-gen telescopic technologies.

By applying a “system science” approach, the teams will work to understand how biology interacts with the atmosphere, geology, oceans, and interior of a planet, and how host stars contribute to habitability. At the same time, the scientists will classify the diversity of worlds (including a “periodic table of planets”), assess potential habitability of exoplanets, and develop new alien-hunting tools and technologies.

Among the teams assembled, some notable contributions will come from: the University of Arizona, Tucson’s “Earth in Other Solar Systems” team; Hampton University, Virginia’s “Living, Breathing Planet” team; NASA’s own Solar System astrobiological initiative; and the Pennsylvania State University project studying the atmospheres of giant planets orbiting hot Jupiters.

This is very exciting stuff, especially in consideration of future projects such as the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), and the Wide-field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST). Over the course of the next 10-to-20 years, astrobiologists may very well detect signs of alien life. But that alien life is bound to be microbial in nature. The search for extraterrestrial intelligence is another challenge altogether.

Image: NASA.


Enter The Space Plane

E-Vectors Space Company to build two type of space planes.  A suborbital, the Fire Fly 200  and a manned  unmanned plane that will be capable of traveling through deep space to Jupiter and beyond the Fire Fly  400.  Both space planes will take off vertically before accelerating to speed of 22,000 miles per hour using fusion /neutronic engines.   A spaceplane is an aerospace vehicle that operates as an aircraft in Earth’s atmosphere, as well as a spacecraft when it is in space.  It combines features of an aircraft and a spacecraft, which can be thought of as an aircraft that can endure and maneuver in the vacuum of space or likewise a spacecraft that can fly like an airplane.

As in a previous blog most of the construction would take place in space at the space factory using the 3 D printer with some of the components built  here on Earth.







Nasa’s Deep Space Exploration Vehicle

NASA’s Space Launch System, or SLS, is
an advanced launch vehicle for a new era of
exploration beyond Earth’s orbit into deep space.
SLS, the world’s most powerful rocket, will launch
astronauts in the agency’s Orion spacecraft on
missions to an asteroid and eventually to Mars,
while opening new possibilities for other payloads
including robotic scientific missions to places like
Mars, Saturn and Jupiter.
Offering the highest-ever payload mass and volume
capability and energy to speed missions through
space, SLS will be the most powerful rocket in
history and is designed to be flexible and evolvable,
to meet a variety of crew and cargo mission needs

Orion Exploration Flight Test 1




In early December, NASA will take an important step into the future with the first flight test of the Orion spacecraft — the first vehicle in history capable of taking humans to multiple destinations in deep space. And while this launch is an un-crewed test, it will be the first peek at how NASA has revamped itself since the end of the Space Shuttle Program in 2011.

While the space shuttle achieved many ground-breaking accomplishments, it was limited to flights in low-Earth orbit (approx. 250 miles high). Its major goal, over the program’s last 10 years, was to launch and assemble the International Space Station, where the risks and challenges of long duration human space flight can be addressed and retired. With the ISS construction complete, NASA is in the process of handing over supply and crew transportation missions to private industry, so NASA can focus on what’s next – deep space exploration. And this first flight test of Orion is a significant milestone on the path to get there.

The flight itself will be challenging. Orion will fly 3,600 miles above Earth on a 4.5-hour mission to test many of the systems necessary for future human missions into deep space. After two orbits, Orion will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere at almost 20,000 miles per hour, reaching temperatures near 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit, before its parachute system deploys to slow the spacecraft for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

While this launch is an important step to taking humans farther than we’ve ever gone before, it is important to note that it also reflects the fact that, after 30 years of space shuttle missions dominating its human spaceflight activities, NASA has reevaluated everything – from its rockets and launch facilities to how it designs and manages its programs. With the Orion spacecraft, NASA wanted to develop a vehicle that could fly for decades with the flexibility to visit different destinations and safely return astronauts to Earth as the nation’s exploration goals evolve. As capable as the Apollo capsule was, the longest round trip mission to the Moon took 12 days. Orion is designed as a long-duration spacecraft that will allow us to undertake human missions to Mars – a two year round trip. In addition, NASA built enough capability into Orion so there is no need for redesign, or to start up a new program, as new destinations are identified.

Innovation and flexibility are also evident with the ground infrastructure. At Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, NASA has eliminated the ground systems and launch pads that were built specifically for the space shuttle. They have developed a “clean pad” approach that can be used by a variety of launch vehicles. The new streamlined infrastructure will be much more cost-efficient, reducing the time for on-the-pad processing from 30 days, the space shuttle’s timeline, to just five to six days.

The key to launching Orion on deep space exploration missions is NASA’s new “super rocket.” Known as the Space Launch System (SLS), it will be the most powerful rocket in history. The enormous power of the SLS will provide the capability to go farther into our solar system than humans have ever gone before. It will enable launches to other planets in less than half the time of any existing rocket. And, like Orion and the new ground systems at KSC, it is designed to be flexible and evolvable to meet a wide variety of crew and cargo mission requirements.

The SLS is an absolute game-changer for ambitious robotic missions to the outer planets and large unprecedented astronomical observatories. Those missions will build on the discoveries of Curiosity on Mars, the Hubble Space Telescope and its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, and multiple robotic missions in the years ahead.

Through the development of the SLS and Orion, NASA has learned many lessons on how to streamline the design to make it more affordable than past systems. For the early missions, SLS will use heritage space shuttle hardware for the liquid engines and solid rocket boosters. Also, instead of initially building the “full-up” SLS, NASA has designed it to evolve by planning upgraded upper stages and boosters that future missions will require in the 2020’s and 2030’s. These innovations have allowed SLS to stay on a relatively flat budget throughout its design phase.

Even the way NASA manages its programs has been revamped. The Agency’s management structure for systems engineering and integration has been streamlined to increase communication and enhance decision-making. Strong communication has led to increased precision, and the potential cost avoidance is close to $100 million per year. Evidence of these savings can be seen in the successful completions of Preliminary Design Reviews for Orion, SLS and KSC ground systems.

As a nation, the U.S. has not sent crews beyond low Earth orbit since the last Apollo crew walked on the Moon in 1972. With Orion and SLS, America will have the fundamental capabilities to support missions taking the next steps into deep space, and with innovation and flexibility at the foundation of these programs, NASA is building a “Highway” for deep space exploration that will be sustainable for decades to come.