ASU Thermal Camera Will Guide Europa Mission’s Search For Water, Life

Published: Monday, October 3, 2016 - 9:51am
Updated: Wednesday, October 5, 2016 - 12:03pm
Audio icon Download mp3 (1.04 MB)
(Image courtesy Arizona State University)
A CAD rendering of the E-THEMIS thermal camera.
(Photo courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute)
Jupiter's icy moon Europa and its complex terrain patterns.
(Photo courtesy NASA/ESA/W. Sparks (STScI)/USGS Astrogeology Science Center)
Composite image of Europa, with likely water plumes located above bottom left portion of the moon.

NASA’s recent news that the Hubble Space Telescope had spotted liquid water plumes on Jupiter’s moon Europa has raised interest in a planned mission that will study the icy world to confirm the ocean’s presence and search for signs of life.

An instrument being built by Arizona State University will show experts where to start looking.

The coffee-maker-sized thermal camera, dubbed the Europa Thermal Emission Imaging System (E-THEMIS) will capture temperatures on the icy moon across a number of thermal bands.

“It’s really based on the night vision goggles that people use,” said Phil Christensen, who leads the E-THEMIS team.

“If there’s recent activity and water’s come up to the surface recently, it’s going to be warmer, and that thermal signature will stand out — just like looking at a nighttime image where you can see warm people or the warm engines on airplanes.”

Several aspects of the Europa mission remain in flux — NASA has yet to name the mission — but it will likely take place later than 2020.

Experts think Europa’s vast subsurface ocean holds more water than our entire planet, spread out beneath an icy surface roughly the size of Earth’s moon. In other words, having a starting point helps.

“If there’s life in the ocean, and it comes up through these fractures – in this warm water that’s coming up – then we might see the organic materials from that ice sitting on the surface,” said Christensen.

NASA will send along an array of devices, including spectrometers and a spectrograph, to study such water and seek signs of life.

Scientists will also dispatch cameras, ice-penetrating radar and a dust analyzer to study other features of Enceladus. A magnetic sounder and magnetometer will work together to gauge the thickness of its ice, and the depth and salinity of its ocean, by tracking how the moon interacts with Jupiter’s magnetic field.

If you like this story, Donate Now!

Like Arizona Science Desk on Facebook