As the NASA team look at what’s in front of them, they can scarcely believe their eyes. There seem to be unusual signals coming from the distant moon of Europa – just one of dozens of mysterious satellites orbiting Jupiter. And although the data has traveled more than 390 million miles across the Solar System, the scientists are in no doubt about what it shows: a vast plume has burst forth from Europa’s surface. How big a deal is this? Well, pretty big! It may even have huge consequences for humanity.
The team were certainly in the best place to make their observations. They were at the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii – which plays home to some of the largest telescopes on Earth. At an altitude of 13,796 feet, the facility enjoys unobstructed views of the night sky, free from light pollution and other atmospheric distortions.
And it’s no wonder the scientists are excited, as Europa could be hiding something that has the potential to completely transform our world. First, though, we need to know a little more. That will likely involve sending a probe to the distant Jupiter system – perhaps even landing on Europa’s surface.
Jupiter itself is no slouch, though. The Red Giant is huge, with a mass approximately two and a half times greater than every other planet put together. It’s also not a pleasant place to be. Jupiter’s atmosphere is gaseous and tempestuous, ravaged by storms and vortices, poisonous ammonia clouds and ferocious winds.
Naturally, that makes Jupiter highly inhospitable and unlikely to harbor carbon-based life. Us humans wouldn’t exactly thrive there, either, and so it’s pretty much a bust as far as terraforming or colonization goes. But with all that said, scientists may still send a probe through Jupiter’s atmosphere to see if it has any surface at all – or just a core.
Yes, soon we may know more about one of the most radiant points in the night sky. And Jupiter has long been a subject of human fascination – both as an abstract mythical god and as a scientifically observed physical phenomenon. Clearly visible to the naked eye, the giant planet was known as Marduk to the Babylonians and Zeus to the Greeks, but we now call it by its Roman name.
Mind you, we didn’t have the capacity to observe Jupiter in detail until 1610. Using a telescope, pioneering astronomer Galileo Galilei was the first person to truly see the planet as well as four of its moons: Ganymede, Io, Callisto and Europa. Then, 50 years later, Giovanni Cassini found that Jupiter was covered in pastel-shaded bands. After that, it was only a matter of time before the famous Great Red Spot was discovered.
But it wasn’t until the late 20th century that a spacecraft was able to venture close enough to the planet. In 1973 the Pioneer 10 space probe completed the first flyby of Jupiter and gathered groundbreaking data about its physical properties. Since then, a total of nine different craft have ventured into Jupiter’s celestial neighborhood.
The first craft to enter Jupiter’s actual orbit? That honor goes to the aptly named Galileo probe. Galileo was perfectly placed to observe the death of the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, which bowled headfirst into Jupiter in 1994. And on December 7, 1995, the probe commenced a seven-year orbit of the huge planet, providing scientists with a wealth of data about its planetary systems – as well as its moons.
Europa’s one of at least 79 moons orbiting Jupiter – although there could well be more. And while the four so-called Galilean moons are some of the largest of their kind in the Solar System, Europa is the tiniest of the bunch. It’s all relative, of course. At 1,900 miles in diameter, Europa’s hardly a speck in the sky!
But the most fascinating aspect of Europa – to scientists, at least – is what it’s made of. Along with its iron-nickel core and body of silicon-heavy rock, the moon has an ice-covered surface covered with cracks and lines. Those fissures have led experts to wonder whether there may be vast and powerful oceans lying underneath.
And Galileo has found evidence that may prove this hypothesis. On a flyby, the probe detected disturbances in Jupiter’s magnetic field close to the orbit of Europa. One of the assumptions? An electrically conductive fluid – such as a briny sea – could be responsible. But perhaps the most exciting find came from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope in 2012.
Led by Lorenz Roth of Stockholm’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology, the Hubble study identified hydrogen and oxygen atoms – that is, the constituent elements of water – within a mysterious atmospheric plume near the moon’s south pole. Approximately 20 times the height of Mount Everest, the formation was vast by earthly standards, and the scientists deduced that it must be partly composed of water vapor.
Then, in 2018, researchers revisited the original Galileo probe data and found convincing evidence that Europa might be ejecting water vapor. And to top it all off, in November 2019 the journal Nature Astronomy published the findings of Dr. Lucas Paganini and his team. They were the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center scientists who had received signals from Europa in Hawaii.
Using a spectrograph, the team had deciphered the chemical composition of Europa’s atmosphere by measuring the infrared light it was emanating. You see, water molecules emit certain infrared frequencies when they interact with solar radiation. And when the NASA team observed the Europan atmosphere from February 2016 to May 2017, they detected a plume of water vapor.
But this was no mere puff of steam. According to Paganini and his team, Europa had ejected some 5,202 pounds of water per second. That’s the equivalent in volume of an Olympic swimming pool over the course of just a few minutes! Still, that was barely enough for the phenomenon to be detected millions of miles away on Earth.
And while the scientists believe that such enormous plumes are relatively infrequent, they can’t yet determine whether Europa ejects smaller plumes more regularly. In a NASA press release, Paganini was quoted as saying, “For me, the interesting thing about this work is not only the first direct detection of water above Europa, but also the lack thereof within the limits of our detection method.”
This may be, but the findings still provide compelling evidence for the claim that there is a vast ocean beneath Europa’s ice sheets. That’s one probable source of the detected plumes, although some scientists have put forward yet another theory. They’ve speculated that the plumes actually emanate from reservoirs of melted ice water below its surface. And then there’s another less likely hypothesis: radiation from Jupiter is causing the moon to release water.
Why is this all so important? Well, water molecules on Europa present a thrilling possibility: the presence of biological life there. Yes, while Jupiter is too inhospitable for anything much to thrive, Europa possesses all the vital ingredients. And there are only a few celestial bodies in our Solar System that you can say this about.
Paganini explained more, saying, “Essential chemical elements… and sources of energy – two of three requirements for life – are found all over the solar system. But the third — liquid water — is somewhat hard to find beyond Earth… [And] while scientists have not yet detected liquid water directly, we’ve found the next best thing: water in vapor form.”
So, soon, we may know whether or not humanity is alone in the universe. Thanks to the development of powerful new probes and telescopes, our knowledge of alien exoplanets is expanding exponentially. And we certainly shouldn’t discount the improvements in our scientific understanding of so-called biosignatures – or physical signs of carbon-based life. Using these, we can narrow down the exoplanets that are viable candidates for biological activity.
Take Europa, for instance. NASA has long regarded the Jovian moon as one of the Solar System’s most likely harbors of alien life forms and has prioritized it for investigation. But if Europa does contain life – and if humans are able to locate it – what kind of form would it take, hidden beneath the ice and trapped in the moon’s vast and gloomy oceans?
This was the question asked by the 2013 sci-fi movie Europa Report, which sees six astronauts travel to Europa to look for other beings. And what they find is, well, pretty darn scary! The organisms the astronauts encounter turn out to be monstrous, bioluminescent sea creatures with giant tentacles. But that’s not likely to happen in reality. The experts believe that Europa would harbor only simple, single-celled life – if, indeed, it has any at all.
So, let’s leave science fiction behind and focus on the facts. Currently, our most advanced exploration of the Jupiter system is being conducted by the NASA probe Juno. After a five-year journey across the solar system, Juno entered the planet’s orbit on July 5, 2016, and almost immediately it began beaming back incredible data and images.
At its closest point, known as the perijove, Juno gets within 2,600 miles of Jupiter. That may still seem pretty far away, but then there are hazardous radiation belts encircling the Red Giant. And it’s still near enough for Juno to collect some detailed data during its flybys, which can stretch for several hours.
What can Juno tell us? Well, the probe’s findings will hopefully enhance our knowledge of how Jupiter formed and evolved. That way, we can also expand our understanding of giant planets and their role within solar systems. And Juno’s onboard devices are capable of measuring many of the planet’s atmospheric properties, including its temperature, chemical composition, magnetic fields, water content, cloud movements and ammonia levels.
Best of all, the probe is equipped with a high-resolution camera that so far has snapped some genuinely mind-blowing images. Previously, the Hubble Space Telescope had managed to capture a crown of colorful auroras at the planet’s north pole, but that’s nothing compared to Juno’s close-ups of psychedelic storms.
Scott Bolton certainly seemed to be wowed, anyway. Bolton is a Juno project leader from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, and he told NASA, “[We have the] first glimpse of Jupiter’s north pole, and it looks like nothing we have seen or imagined before. It’s bluer in color up there than other parts of the planet, and there are a lot of storms. There is no sign of the latitudinal bands or zone and belts that we are used to. This image is hardly recognizable as Jupiter.”
And there’s more. Thanks to Juno, we now know that both of Jupiter’s poles are engulfed in massive cyclones – each the size of the United States. Yes, really! Scientists still have plenty of questions about the phenomena, though. For example, had the cyclones only just appeared when they were spotted? Or had they raged for hundreds of years or more like Jupiter’s Red Spot?
Hinting at these mysteries, Juno scientist Cheng Li told NASA, “Nature is revealing new physics regarding fluid motions and how giant planet atmospheres work. We are beginning to grasp it through observations and computer simulations. Future Juno flybys will help us further refine our understanding by revealing how the cyclones evolve over time.”
Li was speaking after Juno had recorded yet another incredible development: the formation of a new cyclone at the south pole. Previously, the probe had sent images of five apparently stable storms organized in a pentagon around a central cyclone. Quipping about the phenomenon, Bolton said, “It almost appeared like the polar cycles were part of a private club that seemed to resist new members.”
Even more incredibly, the images of the new cyclone were obtained only after a nerve-wracking navigational procedure that could have ended in mission failure. In a near-brush with disaster, Juno very nearly flew into Jupiter’s shadow. That would have caused the probe’s solar-powered onboard systems to shut down and fail, and it was only thanks to the quick thinking of NASA engineers that catastrophe was avoided.
Bolton said of this potential mishap, “No sunlight means no power, so there was real risk we might freeze to death… [But] the engineers came up with a completely new way out of the problem: jump Jupiter’s shadow. It was nothing less than a navigation stroke of genius. [And] lo and behold, first thing out of the gate on the other side, we make another fundamental discovery.”
To complete the maneuver, the NASA team used the probe’s reaction control system in a novel and unintended way. According to their calculations, Juno could avoid the shadow if its trajectory was modified weeks ahead of its perijove. Practically speaking, that meant the folks at NASA needed to perform a controlled thruster burn when Juno was furthest away in its orbit from Jupiter. And all credit to them, the plan worked.
So, what’s next? Well, a probe known as the Europa Clipper is set to travel to the Jupiter system later this decade – possibly launching as soon as 2023. It is scheduled to conduct no fewer than 45 flybys of the watery moon, traveling within just 16 miles of its surface. And if all goes well, the probe will gather a range of data using an onboard suite of instruments. In the process, that should determine the likelihood of Europa harboring life.
Specifically, the spacecraft’s instruments will include radars capable of sensing beneath Europa’s icy crust as well as a magnetometer for detecting gravity and potentially tidal movements. There’ll also be high-resolution cameras and spectrometers for creating maps of the moon’s surface. The 20-feet-high probe will itself be powered by solar arrays measuring 72 feet from end to end.
And to protect its onboard instruments from Jupiter’s high-energy radiation, the Europa Clipper will also be fitted with thick metallic “armor” made of titanium and aluminum. Without such protective measures, the probe would age rapidly and eventually malfunction – which, let’s face it, would be a pretty costly failure.
Part of the probe’s mission will include measuring Europa’s surface temperature using a thermal sensor. This may then enable NASA scientists to locate the moon’s mysterious plumes and examine them in greater detail. And through analyzing the water vapor and other particles in the surrounding atmosphere, the experts should be able to glean groundbreaking new information regarding Europa’s chemical composition.
Most excitingly, the Europa Clipper could tell us whether there are alien beings on the moon. After all, while Europa is considerably colder and darker than our home planet, our knowledge of the Earth’s biosphere proves that life is hardy and quite capable of flourishing in the toughest of places. For example, complex ecosystems have been identified near hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean, where temperatures and pressures are extraordinarily extreme.
Of course, identifying life on Europa may require a few final audacious steps: landing on the moon’s surface, drilling through the ice and extracting physical samples from its oceans if they exist. Even then, there is no guarantee of success. But if Europa does turn out to be barren, the search will go on. After all, according to the famous Drake equation, there are likely to be billions of planets in the universe that harbor life – all just waiting to be discovered.
That’s a thrilling prospect, but it may not have eased the minds of the researchers at the Institute of Astronomy. As the Institute team scanned the night sky, you see, something appeared that completely bamboozled them. This object was passing through the heavens – worryingly close to Earth. Even more disturbingly, the experts spotted this mysterious traveler with the Pan-STARRS1 telescope. This particular device is designed to detect space objects that could pose a risk to our planet. And unfortunately for all humankind, it appeared that this unidentified item fit the bill.
But one man was on the case. A couple of days after the anomalous object was first spotted in September 2020, Paul Chodas, who’d been alerted by the Hawaiian observatory, set to work studying this enigmatic phenomenon. And if anyone could get to the bottom of it all, it would be Chodas. You see, as the manager of the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, he knows his stuff.
At this point, though, the exact identity of the object remained anybody’s guess. Was it an asteroid or a random lump of space junk? How about an alien spaceship from another galaxy? Okay, that third option was, to say the least, a bit of a stretch. But it couldn’t be discounted entirely. At this early stage, scientists had no ready explanation for this unusual object in the night sky.
What was already emerging, however, was that this object was acting in ways not normally seen by your standard asteroid. That’s what Chodas noticed, anyway. Usually, an asteroid follows a path through space that is tilted in relation to the orbit of the Earth around the Sun. By contrast, this particular body was on the same plane as our planet’s path.
Another peculiarity was that 2020 SO, as the object came to be known, was not traveling through the heavens at the type of speed normally observed with asteroids. It was progressing at roughly 1,500mph – much slower than they normally zoom through space. So, Chodas was finding it less and less likely that this was actually an asteroid. But if that was true, then what exactly was this strange visitor?
That speed – or lack of it – was a clincher, as close passes of the Earth by asteroids are not unusual. Asteroids, in case you need reminding, are lumps of rock that may have traveled through space for millions or even billions of years. In fact, they’re what remains of the formation of the Solar System – the Sun and the planets – about 4.6 billion years ago. That’s pretty neat to think about.
And according to NASA, there are more than one million asteroids in the Solar System. But don’t be fooled by that impressively high number. If you took all of these bits of space rock and melded them together, you’d end up with a mass that only comes in at less than half the size of our Moon.
Where are most asteroids found? Generally, in a region lying between the planets Mars and Jupiter. And it’s fortunate that this belt is so far away. Here, you see, you can find the asteroid Vesta, which is a whopping 329 miles around. Good job it isn’t any nearer to Earth! But with that said, most asteroids usually span only around 30 feet or so. And when one of them enters the Earth’s atmosphere, it usually burns up to become a meteor.
But we should be more worried about meteorites, as they partially survive their descent through our atmosphere and strike the Earth. The best-known meteorite was the one that hit our planet roughly 66 million years ago, and the consequences of its impact ultimately led to the extinction of the dinosaurs.
So, although most meteors or meteorites are harmless, not all are. And that’s why the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies exists. You’ll remember that this agency’s boss, Chodas, was the man who recognized that 2020 OS did not seem like an ordinary asteroid. As you’ll recall, however, he wasn’t at all sure what it really was.
In any case, the organization Chodas heads has a very important mission. Staff at the agency keep an eye on the skies, and when they spot an asteroid they make an assessment of the object’s likely trajectory. Yep, if Earth is going to be struck by a dangerously large piece of space rock, it’s the Center for Near-Earth Objects Studies that will sound a warning.
But could there be another explanation for the object that the Hawaiian researchers spotted? Well, yes. Simply put, it could be space junk. According to the U.K.’s Natural History Museum in London, thousands of pieces of space debris have been left to orbit around the planet since humans first started looking to the skies.
Bits of launch rockets and even just fragments of paint are all traveling around in the atmosphere, along with what is said to be some 3,000 redundant satellites. And there are literally millions of smaller bits of trash traveling in circles, trapped by the planet’s gravitational pull.
Generally speaking, abandoned or lost pieces of equipment that are left at lower altitudes soon burn up in the atmosphere as they’re pulled towards Earth. However, pieces of junk at more than around 22,000 miles above the planet’s surface will remain in pointless orbit for centuries or even millennia. And, shockingly, there is a risk that new satellites may collide with old, dead ones – although it’s roughly a one in 10,000 chance.
Then, when India, the USA and China use these redundant satellites for missile target practice, another wrench is thrown into the works. You see, the resulting impact and explosion of one of these launches create thousands of bits of extra garbage. And while space junk might seem a fairly remote problem, it’s a real one. In 2020 alone, the International Space Station had to take evasive action on three occasions to avoid collisions with this detritus.
Plus, as you may already have assumed, this mysterious object sadly wasn’t an alien spaceship. So, what exactly was it? Well, the evidence began to point in one rather surprising direction. Chodas had already ruled out an asteroid, of course, because of the way this mass was orbiting around the Sun and the Earth.
Specifically, Chodas had discovered the unusual path 2020 SO was taking after using a computer simulation. But it was then that he had a bright idea. Why not try throwing the simulation into reverse in an attempt to work out the origin of the object? And as it happens, that’s just what he did.
In effect, Chodas was making 2020 SO travel back through time – and the results were startling. You see, this backward simulation showed that the object had been quite close to Earth back in 1966. In fact, as the scientist told The New York Times in December 2020, 2020 SO was “close enough that it could have originated from the Earth.”
With this incredible news in his back pocket, Chodas quickly went public. He emailed colleagues around the world with a message describing the hunch generated by his backward simulation. The gist of this theory? He believed the mystery object could actually once have been part of the NASA space vehicle Surveyor 2. And that seemed a real possibility, as the Surveyor 2 mission had gone spectacularly wrong.
This doomed launch had actually been part of NASA’s Surveyor series, with the first blast-off from Cape Canaveral being in May 1966. And the program had gotten off to a good start. Powered by an Atlas-Centaur rocket, the Surveyor 1 spacecraft made the first ever successful soft landing on the surface of the Moon. The purpose of the Surveyor missions was to scout out conditions on the Moon in preparation for the manned Apollo missions that would follow.
So, as Surveyor 1 had done its job well, NASA was apparently optimistic about its second Surveyor mission, which launched in September 1966. Like its predecessor – which had transmitted 11,000 images back to Earth – Surveyor 2 was tasked with beaming back photographs of the lunar terrain.
Mike Dinn had been the deputy director of the monitoring station in Tidbinbilla, Australia, that had tracked Surveyor 2 as it sped towards the Moon. And when speaking to The New York Times in December 2020, he recalled the positive mood that had surrounded that 1966 launch. Dinn claimed, “We fully expected Surveyor 2 to be a complete success.”
It’s true that Surveyor 2’s launch went smoothly. The one-ton spacecraft, like Surveyor 1, was blasted into space en route to an area of the Moon called Sinus Medii. But at a critical moment in the flight, something went very wrong with one of Surveyor 2’s three booster engines.
NASA’s plan was that the three thrusters would all fire for just under ten seconds during the journey to the Moon. This would correct the course of Surveyor 2, ensuring that it would land at the chosen destination. But while two of the jets ignited as planned, one remained dead. And, unfortunately, this failure pushed the ship into an uncontrolled tailspin.
Desperately trying to correct the malfunction, ground control at the mission center tried to fire up the uncooperative rocket no fewer than 39 times. But it was all to no avail. The spacecraft lost communication with Earth and began to freefall towards the Moon’s surface. And a NASA press release just after the event described what had happened next.
The somber message revealed, “For more than 24 hours, engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory attempted to correct an out-of-control tumbling condition which began during the midcourse trajectory correction [of Surveyor 2]… Early today, it also was apparent that the major objectives of the mission could not be met.” Ultimately, the stricken spacecraft crashed into the Moon’s surface, near the crater Copernicus.
Still, this catastrophe didn’t stop NASA from continuing with the Surveyor program. And, fortunately, of the seven launches, five all passed off without major incident. It all culminated in the Apollo 11 mission, which landed men on the Moon in 1969. This truly history-making feat was partly enabled by the information that the Surveyor spacecraft had previously collected.
Overall, the Surveyor program had proved more than worthwhile. But that didn’t help Chodas. Even though he had an inkling that the mysterious object had been part of the Surveyor 2 rocket, he needed to make sure once and for all. Detailed analysis of 2020 SO was the next step.
Scientists around the world then began to work on studying this strange flying mass, hoping to get a positive ID. Of course, that was no easy task. We’re talking about something that was only about 25 feet long, after all. It also didn’t help that it was floating through space many thousands of miles from Earth.
But there was confirmation of sorts that 2020 SO was not a naturally formed asteroid. Researchers in Arizona and Spain confirmed that radiation from the Sun was subtly altering the object’s path, which would be extremely unlikely if the mass was a piece of solid rock. If it was a hollow piece of metal, on the other hand? That phenomenon would be entirely expected.
So, it was looking increasingly likely that 2020 SO was not an asteroid or even an alien spaceship but the remains of a booster rocket. And Chodas suggested that it could be the Centaur rocket section from Surveyor 2. That had been jettisoned soon after the spacecraft had launched from Earth.
After separating from Surveyor 2, the Centaur booster had traveled on through space, past the Moon and – as far as anyone knew – onwards into oblivion. But if this piece of space debris was the Centaur, it had clearly started to orbit around the Sun in a full circle that also brought it close to Earth.
Fortunately, state-of-the-art technology was able to help confirm that 2020 SO was comprised of metal rather than rock. Vishnu Reddy, an associate professor at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, led the team that analyzed the data captured by an infrared telescope in Maunakea, Hawaii.
Quoted on the NASA website, Reddy said of the results, “Due to extreme faintness of this object following [the] Center for Near-Earth Object Studies prediction, it was a challenging object to characterize. We got color observations with the Large Binocular Telescope or LBT that suggested 2020 SO was not an asteroid.” But his work went further than that.
Next, Reddy and his colleagues compared the infrared signature of 2020 SO with that of 301 steel – the material used in Centaur rockets. But while the match was close, the team had to be even more precise if they wanted to make a definite identification. So, they went onto the next stage of the painstaking research, which involved more infrared signal comparisons.
Reddy explained this further step, saying, “We knew that if we wanted to compare apples to apples, we’d need to try to get spectral data from another Centaur rocket booster that had been in Earth orbit for many years to then see if it better matched 2020 SO’s spectrum.” But this, too, would be no simple task.
“Because of the extreme speed at which Earth-orbiting Centaur boosters travel across the sky,” Reddy continued, “we knew it would be extremely difficult to lock on with the Infrared Telescope Facility long enough to get a solid and reliable data set.” But the scientists were determined to do just that. And early in December 2020, they succeeded.
The researchers focused on observing what they knew to be the remnants of a Centaur booster rocket from 1971. They kept this piece of space junk in their sights long enough to get sufficient data, as that way they could compare this information with what they already had about 2020 SO. And the result of the analysis of the two sets of data? A conclusive match.
Yep, what had started out as a mere hunch was now accepted as fact. This piece of space junk definitely was not an asteroid. Nor was it a spaceship from another galaxy – even if UFO hunters may have wanted it to be. Instead, it was indeed the Centaur booster rocket that had formed a key part of the sadly unsuccessful Surveyor 2 mission.
Sometime around the spring of 2021, the Centaur booster will pass beyond our planet and head off on its orbit around the Sun. And it won’t be the last time that this memorial to the failed NASA launch returns. The dead thruster is slated to head again towards Earth sooner than you may think, in fact. Chodas told The New York Times, “In 2036, it’s coming back.”