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Scientists have developed a method to search for cellular life on Europa, an ice-covered moon of Jupiter, using ice grains that might be collected by NASA’s Europa Clipper probe during its flybys in the 2030s. The technique involves analyzing ice grains using a tool called the Surface Dust Analyzer (SUDA) that can identify the chemical content of individual particles through impact ionization mass spectrometry. This technique has the potential to provide information on whether Europa may host life.

The ice grains found on Europa are thought to contain a diverse mixture of organic compounds, similar to the ice grains detected in Enceladus’ plumes during NASA’s Cassini mission. The plumes on Europa are believed to be produced by interplanetary meteoroids impacting the moon’s surface, creating a cloud of ice grains that could be ideal for study with instruments like SUDA. This discovery has caused scientists to consider the possibility of finding fragments of cellular life in the ice grains emanating from Europa.

The researchers conducted simulations in their lab to test SUDA’s capabilities in analyzing ice grains that may contain cellular material. By using a laser-equipped device to study water droplets containing bacteria and bacterial fragments, the team was able to detect the chemical signature of the cells in the droplets. The study found that certain modes of operation of the instrument could be optimized to better identify key components, such as amino acids and fatty acids, present in bacterial cells.

The results of this study will be crucial in informing the preparations for the Europa Clipper mission, which is set to launch in October and enter orbit around Jupiter in the 2030s. The newfound ability to identify cellular material in ice grains will enhance the scientific observations conducted by SUDA and similar instruments on the spacecraft. This discovery also aligns with recent findings suggesting that Europa’s icy shell is more than 20 kilometers thick, with potential melt pools connecting the ocean beneath to the moon’s surface.

In addition to Europa, similar instruments with capabilities to identify cellular material in ice grains are being considered for future missions to Enceladus, as well as for NASA’s Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe and Japan’s DESTINY+ mission to the asteroid Phaeton. These advancements in technology and research will play a crucial role in expanding our understanding of potential life in the outer solar system and the mechanisms for material exchange between moons like Europa and the subsurface oceans that may harbor life.

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