The European Space Agency and NASA have set up a small science group to discuss a potential joint mission to Jupiter's moon Europa which could be launched in 2016 at the earliest.

The mission would involve a data-relay satellite orbiting Jupiter, and either a radar-mapping satellite in orbit around Europa to map the global ice cover, or a lander to make a local investigation. Europa is of interest because it is covered with white-brown ice, contorted by Jupiter's gravitational forces.

"The magnetometer aboard the NASA Galileo Jupiter orbiter detected a magnetic field induced within Europa, and signals almost certainly indicate an interior body of liquid water," says David Southwood, ESA's director of science. Tidal heating "has almost certainly produced vast oceans of water under the ice", he adds, and scientists speculate about theoretical micro-organisms.

Co-operation with NASA "is a really good potential solution... the Cassini-Huygens mission has whetted the appetite", says Southwood.

Source: Flight International