New Thermal Imaging Technology to Look for Life on Jupiter Moon

Could Europa support extraterrestrial life? We’ll soon find out.

The Europa Thermal Emission Imaging System (E-THEMIS) will soon be one of nine science instruments to fly aboard a spacecraft to investigate Jupiter’s mysterious, icy moon, Europa. The goal is to investigate the possibility of livable conditions on the moon, which is covered in frozen lakes.

The thermal instrument will be designed to scan the surface of Europa looking for warm spots, locating vents erupting plumes of water into space. Europa’s water is suspected to lie 40 miles (70 kilometers) below the moon’s crust.

The THEMIS instrument, before being mounted onto Mars Odyssey.

The THEMIS instrument, before being mounted onto Mars Odyssey.

The original THEMIS was a camera on board the 2001 Mars Odyssey orbiter, used to map images of the red planet in infrared regions of the electromagnetic spectrum in order to determine the thermal properties of its surface. 

The Thermal Emission Spectrometer inside THEMIS mapped the distribution of minerals on the surface of Mars.

Like THEMIS before it, the E-THEMIS will be produced by Ball Aerospace & Technologies engineers, supporting principal investigator Dr. Philip Christensen at Arizona State University (ASU).

ASU will be responsible for instrument design, fabrication, assembly, testing and calibration, along with mission operations and science data processing. Ball Aerospace will provide the engineering model and flight electronics, leading the development of the radiation-hardened microbolometer (used as a detector in a thermal camera) focal plane assembly. It will also handle the design and implementation of the system radiation hardening and mitigation.

Cameras built by Ball Aerospace aboard the Hubble Space Telescope previously returned images showing plumes of water shooting out from the surface of Europa.  Confirmation of the plumes’ existence by E-THEMIS could link the plumes to a subsurface ocean and help scientists investigate the chemical makeup of Europa’s potentially habitable environment.

The E-THEMIS instrument will be built at ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration.

To learn more about the E-THEMIS, visit