“All these worlds are yours except Europa. Attempt no landings there.”
That’s the prophetic warning delivered to humanity in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010. Luckily for us, in the real world, there is no overarching intelligence shepherding the development of fledgling life, so we can, and should, be attempting landings there. Europa (one of Jupiter’s moons) is a fascinating place, and one of the few candidates for harboring life in our solar system.
Europa has a strangely alien surface consisting of sheets of ice potentially miles thick that are criss-crossed with fracture patterns. The surface re-paves itself over relatively short timescales due to all of the ice moving around. But thanks to that wonderful property of water, that it is less dense in its frozen state, we believe there to be a large sub-surface ocean beneath Europa’s surface. Many scientists think this ocean is our best hope for finding life in the solar system.
Luckily, some scientists aren’t just dreaming about it, they’re working on doing something about it. Scientists at UC Berkeley say we could send an unmanned mission to Europa within fifteen years. One of the most popular plans involves a submersible that could melt its way through the thick layer of ice and explore the oceans. However we do end up going there, however, we need to keep the spirit behind the “Attempt no landings there” maxim intact. In 2010, we were instructed not to land on Europa to prevent contaminating it with Earth life. That instruction is still just as important as ever, fiction or not.