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A life-detection strategy for NASA’s Europa Lander Concept

DRI microbial ecologist co-authors report on the scientific value of future mission

Reno, Nevada – Dr. Alison Murray’s research has taken her to the southern-most waters surrounding Antarctica to the depths of the Pacific Ocean, and as far north as the Arctic circle. Her expertise studying the microorganisms inhabiting some of Earth’s harshest ecosystems is now helping NASA in its search for life beyond our planet.

In a new report to NASA released this week, Murray and 20 other scientists assess the scientific value and engineering design of a future mission to the surface of Jupiter’s icy moon Europa. NASA enlists expertise of the scientific community in the form of a Science Definition Team (SDT) to define the science objectives, associated measurement requirements and feasibility of mission, and model payload concepts which together define the science value of the potential mission.

The report outlines three science goals and recommends a life-detection strategy, a first for a NASA mission since the Mars Viking mission era more than four decades ago.

“This is a very real step toward a signs of life mission,” said Murray, a molecular microbial ecologist at the Desert Research Institute (DRI) who is best known for her work discovering the existence of microbial life within an Antarctica’s ice-sealed, anoxic, dark, and negative 13-degree Celsius brines of Lake Vida, the largest of several unique lakes found in the McMurdo Dry Valleys. 


nh europa lander concept 0This artist's rendering illustrates a conceptual design for a potential future mission to land a robotic probe on the surface of Jupiter's moon Europa. The lander is shown with a sampling arm extended, having previously excavated a small area on the surface. The circular dish on top is a dual-purpose high-gain antenna and camera mast, with stereo imaging cameras mounted on the back of the antenna. Three vertical shapes located around the top center of the lander are attachment points for cables that would lower the rover from a sky crane, which is envisioned as the landing system for this mission concept. For other resolutions go to: http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA21048

Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech


In addition to Murray, two other co-chairs lead the team – Dr. Kevin Hand of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology and Dr. James Garvin of NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center. Working with Dr. Curt Niebur and Joan Salute of NASA, a team of 18 additional scientists from throughout the US contributed to the report. 

“There was a lot of deliberation on the best ways to accomplish such a monumental set of tasks,” explained Murray. “Since the Viking mission we’ve learned a lot more about the search for life and how to answer the tough questions.”

In addition to science goals for the mission, the report also makes recommendations on the number and type of science instruments that would be required to confirm if signs of life are present in samples collected from the icy moon's surface.

To guide the assessment of detection limits and measurement requirements for the Europa lander concept, Murray and the team utilized several “benchmark” ecosystems on Earth (such as Antarctica’s ice-sealed lakes) thought to be similar to the ice and ocean environments of Europa. Total biomass, cell abundances, and organic content measured in these Earth environments served as useful metrics for potential biosignatures on Europa.

Scientists concur that based on current data Europa holds promise to be habitable as a result of a global ocean and ocean-seafloor interface where chemistry similar to Earth’s ocean may exist.

“It’s an exciting time for ocean and life scientists to work across disciplines with planetary scientists to explore the potential for the outer ocean worlds of the solar system to harbor life,” Murray added.

To read more about this exciting study, the official NASA announcement is available at: https://www.nasa.gov/feature/nasa-receives-science-report-on-europa-lander-concept

More information about Dr. Alison Murry’s research and the Desert Research Institute are available at: https://www.dri.edu/alison-murray-research

To read the complete report visit: http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/europa/technical.cfm

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The Desert Research Institute (DRI) is a world leader in environmental sciences through the application of knowledge and technologies to improve people’s lives throughout Nevada and the world. Learn more at www.dri.edu