Nasa questing to find alien life with three ‘probe’ missions and one will send Dragonfly robot to Saturn’s moon

ALIENS might be out there in our own solar system – and Nasa means to find them.

The space agency is working on a series of groundbreaking missions to uncover evidence of extraterrestrial life.

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Jupiter’s moon Europa may harbor alien life in a vast ocean beneath its icy crustCredit: Reuters

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The Europa Clipper spacecraft is set to launch later this yearCredit: NASA

EUROPA CLIPPER

Launching: October 10, 2024

First on our list is Nasa’s Europa Clipper, which will place a spacecraft in orbit around Jupiter.

But its focus is actually Jupiter’s Europa – a moon roughly the same size as Earth’s own.

“NASA’s Europa Clipper will conduct detailed reconnaissance of Jupiter’s moon Europa and investigate whether the icy moon could harbor conditions suitable for life,” Nasa explains.

With a 100-foot span, it’s the biggest spacecraft ever built by Nasa for this kind of planetary mission.

The craft will launch in 2024, but won’t arrive until Europa until April 2030.

Europa has been consistently identified as a key location in our solar system for potentially hosting extraterrestrial life.

Scientists believe alien organisms may be lurking in a vast ocean hidden beneath the moon’s icy crust.

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And while it might not find proof of aliens directly, it will definitely be able to give us a much better idea of whether the moon is capable of hosting life.

TITAN DRAGONFLY

Launching: July 2028

Next up is Dragonfly, a helicopter-style robotic rotorcraft that will be able to take off and land vertically.

Its destination is Titan, Saturn’s largest moon and a possible home to alien life.

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Dragonfly could find evidence of alien life on Saturn’s moon TitanCredit: NASA APL

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The Dragonfly will be capable of taking off and landing verticallyCredit: AP:Associated Press

Part of Titan’s appeal for scientists is how the moon was once like our own planet in its early days.

“Titan is an analog to the very early Earth, and can provide clues to how life may have arisen on our planet,” Nasa explained.

“During its 2.7-year baseline mission, Dragonfly will explore diverse environments from organic dunes to the floor of an impact crater where liquid water and complex organic materials key to life once existed together for possibly tens of thousands of years.

“Its instruments will study how far prebiotic chemistry may have progressed.

Saturn’s moon Titan: The facts

Here’s everything you need to know…

  • Titan is Saturn’s largest moon.
  • It is an icy world whose surface is completely obscured by a golden hazy atmosphere.
  • At 1,600 miles across, Titan is the second biggest moon in our solar system.
  • It’s bigger than Earth’s moon (1,100 miles across), and larger than even the planet Mercury (1,500 miles).
  • Titan is the only world besides Earth that has standing bodies of liquid, including rivers, lakes and seas, on its surface.
  • Like Earth, Titan’s atmosphere is primarily nitrogen, plus a small amount of methane.
  • It is the sole other place in the Solar System known to have an earthlike cycle of liquids raining from clouds, flowing across its surface, filling lakes and seas, and evaporating back into the sky.
  • Titan is also thought to have a subsurface ocean of water.
  • Scientists have earmarked it as a key target in their search for alien life due to its similarity to Earth.

“They also will investigate the moon’s atmospheric and surface properties and its subsurface ocean and liquid reservoirs.

“Additionally, instruments will search for chemical evidence of past or extant life.”

Dragonfly is expected to arrive on Titan in 2034.

It will be the first craft to make powered and fully controlled flights on any moon.

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Saturn’s moon Titan is thought to have a subsurface ocean of waterCredit: NASA

EXOMARS ROVER

Launching: Not before 2028

The Rosalind Franklin ExoMars Rover is actually a European Space Agency project.

But Nasa has contributed resources – and helped design critical instrument elements – for the mission.

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The ExoMars Rover will drill into the surface of Mars to look for signs of past lifeCredit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

It’s a planned six-wheeled Mars rover that weighs around 660 pounds.

The rover is expected to carry a 6-foot-7 sampling drill and a laboratory drawer.

And it will use these tools to search for signs of past life.

“A major goal of the mission is to look for organics in samples collected by the rover’s drilling efforts,” Nasa says.

How long does it take to get to Mars?

It’s not that short of a trip…

  • There’s an immense distance between Earth and Mars, which means any trip to the red planet will take a very long time
  • It’s also made more complicated by the fact that the distance is constantly changing as the two planets rotate around the sun
  • The closest that the Earth and Mars would ever be is a distance of 33.9million miles – that’s 9,800 times the distance between London and New York
  • That’s really rare though: the more useful distance is the average, which is 140million miles
  • Scientists on Earth have already launched a whole bunch of spacecraft to (or near) Mars, so we have a rough idea of how long it takes with current technology
  • Historically, the trip has taken anywhere from 128 to 333 days – admittedly a huge length of time for humans to be on board a cramped spacecraft.

“After pristine material is gathered from beneath the Martian surface, samples of particular scientific interest will be placed in the MOMA ovens.

“Vapor released from heated samples will be analyzed with gas chromatography for traces of organic compounds.

“Organic compounds are chemicals that contain carbon, and are not themselves a sign of life.

“However, certain specific organic molecules are found in cells and, if discovered, might provide clues about the potential for life on Mars.”

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Sadly, the mission has faced significant delays.

That’s because ExoMars was being jointly managed by Russia’s Roscosmos – a partnership that was ended after the invasion of Ukraine.

A new launch date is expected to be announced later this year.

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