Ocean Worlds: Motivations for a Multi-Decadal Exploration Program by NASA and Partners


Ocean Worlds are an emerging class of celestial bodies critical to the search for life in the solar system and beyond, especially for studies of habitability, planetary formation, planetary evolution, and volatile transport.


Ocean Worlds’ exploration began with the Galileo mission to Jupiter, where the geologically young satellite Europa was discovered to possess a likely global saltwater ocean, and later the discovery of putative oceans at Ganymede and Callisto. This exploration continued with the Cassini mission, which observed the spectacular water jets at the south pole of Enceladus and the organic-rich landscape of Titan resting on top of a planetary ice shell and water ocean. The Dawn mission to Ceres and New Horizons mission to Pluto broadened the potential diversity of Ocean Worlds. Today, NASA is planning the flagship Clipper mission to Europa and New Frontiers-class Dragonfly mission to Titan, while ESA is planning the L-Class JUICE mission to Jupiter’s Ocean Worlds. In its extended mission, NASA’s New Frontiers-class Juno spacecraft will perform limited flybys of Jupiter’s Ocean Worlds. Future in situ exploration may target icy surfaces, planetary oceans, plume samples, and exotic traverses.


The in situ exploration of Ocean Worlds is increasingly feasible, with specifically enabling advancements in instrumentation, technologies, and techniques facilitated by several, dedicated NASA-funding streams. Leveraging such developments, several mission concepts have been put forward in response to recent Discovery and New Frontiers announcements of opportunity, and multitudes more were submitted for consideration to the 2023-2032 Planetary Science and Astrobiology Decadal Survey. This wealth of scientific opportunity and the numerous pathways to exploration match the rich diversity of Ocean Worlds targets. No one mission to a single Ocean World can address the full breadth of driving scientific questions across this class of body.


More research will be critical to convincingly answer the questions of whether and why these hidden oases are inhabited.

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