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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Russia Wants to Land on Europa

NASA is expected to announce next week whether its next mission to the outer planets will target Jupiter’s moon Europa or Saturn’s Titan, but the Russians apparently have their own game plan.

Europa freckles During a week-long meeting in Moscow that ended today, scientists presented ideas for a free-flying lander and small orbiter to study Europa, a long-favored target of scientists in search of life beyond Earth.

The bulk of the science would be undertaken by a hefty lander which could include some type of drill to penetrate into Europa’s icy crust. Beneath the ice, scientists suspect a large ocean is hiding, with two to three times the amount of all the water on Earth. The thickness of the ice is unknown.

The Russians, however, have an even bigger hurdle to clear: getting funding for the mission.

(Europa's freckled surface, captured by NASA's Galileo spacecraft in 1998. The spots and pits seen in the moon's northern hemisphere are each about six miles in diameter. The dark spots are called "lenticulae," the Latin term for freckles. Their similar sizes and spacing suggest that Europa's icy shell may be churning away like a lava lamp, with warmer ice moving upward from the bottom of the ice shell while colder ice near the surface sinks downward.)

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