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NASA is encouraging people to submit their names to be sent into deep space

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

NASA is encouraging people to submit their names to be sent into deep space, specifically to Jupiter's icy moon, Europa. NPR's Regina Barber reports on NASA's Message in a Bottle campaign and what makes this moon special.

REGINA BARBER, BYLINE: So far, over a million people have submitted names to NASA's Message in a Bottle campaign. The Europa Clipper spacecraft will carry dime-sized microchips that can each hold about a million names. This spacecraft will travel 390 million miles from Earth to Jupiter's second major moon, a world with a cracked, icy surface that scientists believe is hiding a liquid water ocean.

CYNTHIA PHILLIPS: We really like the imagery of putting a message into a bottle and casting it off into this cosmic sea.

BARBER: That's Cynthia Phillips, a planetary geologist who works on the Europa Clipper mission. On the Message in a Bottle website, there's a participation map, infographics and a poem, "In Praise Of Mystery: A Poem For Europa."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ADA LIMON: And it is not darkness that unites us, not the cold distance of space, but the offering of water.

BARBER: That's the poem's author, U.S. Poet laureate Ada Limon, reading an excerpt. The Clipper mission will image the moon's frozen surface and use radar to investigate the vast subsurface ocean.

PHILLIPS: Where we find life on Earth, we find water.

BARBER: Phillips says that there would be little sunlight to support life on Europa because in this part of the solar system, the sun just looks like a bright star. And underneath that ice, everything is dark. So any life in Europa's ocean would most likely exist around thermal vents on the ocean floor. Those vents are caused by Jupiter's gravitational push and pull. Here's Phillips again.

PHILLIPS: If you're holding a rubber ball in your hand and you're squishing it and stretching it with your hands, that ball is going to get a little squishy and it'll kind of heat up. And that's the same effect that's going on inside this moon of Jupiter, inside Europa.

BARBER: The thick, icy surface also would protect any potential ocean life from the harsh radiation environment around Europa. But the spacecraft doesn't have that kind of shielding.

PHILLIPS: We did some studies that if you land on the surface or even if you orbit around Europa with a spacecraft, you could only survive maybe for a month before your spacecraft gets totally fried by this radiation.

BARBER: That's why the Europa Clipper won't orbit the moon, but will fly by it several times to avoid this damage. This mission isn't going to tell us if there is life on Europa, but it will tell us more about the moon's composition and geology. And it can carry your name to the stars. NASA's Message in a Bottle campaign is open for submissions until December 31.

Regina Barber, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE (TAYLOR'S VERSION)")

TAYLOR SWIFT: (Singing) A message in a bottle is all I can do. Standing here, hoping it gets... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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