Popular Science

SHAMU DREAMS OF EUROPA

Earth, far off now, looks like an unpopulated set of continents surrounded by empty ocean. You’d never know that all kinds of life—from staph to elephants to humans—move all over its surface. I just spent two years in a wide orbit around the blue marble, the first step in a circuitous journey toward Jupiter. We circled around the globe in this Space Launch System cargo capsule until our position was just right for Earth’s gravity to fling us toward the Jovian planet.

That isn’t meant to be my new homestead, though. I’m headed for Europa, a smaller sphere. Its exterior is sheathed in a miles-thick layer of ice. But underneath, enwombed like I am in this lander, there might be an ocean. Scientists say that with its water and its chemistry, it could be the place in the solar system (besides Earth) most likely to have life. Other spacecraft carrying other instruments have floated past it: Pioneer, Voyager, Galileo (great names, right?). Looking down with their farsighted cameras, they didn’t see any beings waving white flags. In fact, no human-made device has ever spotted definitive signs of alien existence. But maybe they simply didn’t—or couldn’t—look close enough.

I can. Hello, I’m Shamu. (Isn’t that another great name?) Seeing things close up is my raison d’être. I’ll land on Europa’s icy surface and a drill will cut down into the moon. I’ll suck up its liquid essence and spy magnified details that no one has seen before. Maybe my view will show only water, neat, no microbes. But maybe not.

Although willing and able to travel, Shamu—formally named the

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