Why NASA's Plans for an Early 2020s Mission to Europa Are Likely to Happen

Europa mission concepts under study by NASA.  Image Credit: NASA/JPL

Europa mission concepts under study by NASA. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

For years scientists and dreamers alike have looked toward Jupiter’s moon Europa with a keen interest, because decades of observations and research of the frozen world (thanks to spacecraft like Galileo and Voyager) have shown us that the Jovian satellite is easily one of the most likely places—if not the most likely place—in the Solar System where life might be found (other than Earth, of course). Consistently shrinking budgets, nationwide economic troubles, competing interests for federal dollars, and a large deficit currently hold hostage any future Flagship planetary missions for the next several years, but the Fiscal Year 2015 budget request from the White house includes $15 million in funding for NASA to begin work designing a robotic mission to Europa, with a launch date targeted for the early 2020s. 

“In the coming year, we’ll build on our nation’s record of breathtaking and compelling scientific discoveries and achievements in space, with science missions that will reach far into our solar system, reveal unknown aspects of our universe and provide critical knowledge about our home planet,” said NASA Administrator and veteran space shuttle astronaut Charlie Bolden in a statement released March 4. “It includes funding for missions to Mars and the formulation for a mission to Jupiter’s moon, Europa. It also funds science missions already heading toward destinations such as Jupiter and Pluto and operating throughout the solar system, a mission to study our planet’s magnetic system, and steady progress on the James Webb Space Telescope.”

That is great news for a space agency that has become accustomed to receiving less and less money to do what they do best—explore—but what are the odds that a proposed mission there will survive development long enough to reach launch? Who’s to say the next administration won’t cut funding for that mission all together, like what President Barack Obama did to the Constellation/Ares program when he took office for his first term, or like what NASA did with the HL-20 program that was brought back to life by Sierra Nevada as the Dream Chaser? After all, over the last five decades NASA has developed numerous programs, missions, and vehicles that never went anywhere, for whatever various reasons.

Europa

Complex and beautiful patterns adorn the icy surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa, as seen in this color image intended to approximate how the satellite might appear to the human eye. Many reddish linear to curvilinear features are observed, some stretching for thousands of kilometers across the surface. The reddish-brown material is a non-ice contaminant that colors Europa’s frozen surface. The data used to create this view were acquired by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft in 1995 and 1998. Photo Credit: NASA / JPL.

The odds, actually, appear good for a mission to Europa happening—very good—because the mission has strong support in Congress, especially from Houston Republican Congressman John Culberson, who just so happens to be next in line to replace U.S. Rep. from Virginia Frank Wolf as chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee responsible for NASA’s budget.

“I’m certain that there’s life elsewhere in the universe, and I’m also certain that the first place we will discover life on another world is Europa. It will be discovered in the oceans of Europa, and it will be a robotic mission designed and flown by NASA that discovers it,” said Senator Culberson in an interview with Houston Chronicle Science Reporter Eric Berger in late 2013. “If I’m successful in becoming chairman of the subcommittee that’s going to be right when the Europa mission will need its maximum funding. It needs to be a flagship mission. The biggest and best we’ve ever flown. I really feel blessed. I got on this incredible committee where I will be in exactly the right place at the right time to be able to help turn NASA around, to not only preserve America’s leadership role in space, but I also hope to be a key part in discovering life on another world for the first time. We’re only going to have one chance at this in our lifetimes. We’ve got one shot. I want to make sure you and I are here to see those first tube worms and lobsters on Europa.”

A mission to Europa has strong political support in its favor, as well as the law. NASA must develop a mission to Europa as outlined on page 159 of the 2014 budget bill approved in December 2013, which gave NASA JPL $80 million to begin preparations for a mission to Europa—even though NASA never requested any money for a Europa mission in FY 2014 (or FY 2013 for that matter).

Based on new evidence from Jupiter's moon Europa, astronomers hypothesize that chloride salts bubble up from the icy moon's global liquid ocean and reach the frozen surface where they are bombarded with sulfur from volcanoes on Jupiter's innermost large moon Io. The new findings propose answers to questions that have been debated since the days of NASA's Voyager and Galileo missions. This illustration of Europa (foreground), Jupiter (right) and Io (middle) is an artist's concept. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Based on new evidence from Jupiter’s moon Europa, astronomers hypothesize that chloride salts bubble up from the icy moon’s global liquid ocean and reach the frozen surface where they are bombarded with sulfur from volcanoes on Jupiter’s innermost large moon Io. The new findings propose answers to questions that have been debated since the days of NASA’s Voyager and Galileo missions. This illustration of Europa (foreground), Jupiter (right), and Io (middle) is an artist’s concept. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

As specified on page 159 of the 2014 Consolidated Appropriations Act, “$80,000,000 shall be for pre-formulation and/or formulation activities for a mission that meets the science goals outlined for the Jupiter Europa mission in the most recent planetary science decadal survey.”

Senator Culberson even went as far as to introduce Robert Ballard, who discovered the wreck of the Titanic, to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in southern California to get Ballard involved in a mission to Europa. “I think he (Ballard) should help design a penetrator, swimmer, and/or sniffer that would punch through the ice of Europa and find and photograph life in Europa’s oceans,” said Culberson. “I think it’s going to be a match made in heaven”

Evidence for the possibility of Europa being a habitable world points strongly to a global subsurface ocean beneath a shell of ice that covers its whole surface. The ocean beneath Europa’s surface ice is not just big either; it’s twice the volume of all the Earth’s oceans, and everywhere on Earth where there’s water, there’s life. NASA’s motto of “follow the water” leads straight to Europa more than any other place in the Solar System. Europa is so far away from the Sun that our star cannot warm it enough to sustain life, but Jupiter’s gravity tugs hard on Europa, causing it flex and generate heat. It’s the same process we see when the ocean tides rise and fall each day thanks to the gravitational pull of our Moon, except on Europa those forces are much stronger. Jupiter’s tug and pull on Europa keeps its subsurface ocean going, and the heat generated by Jupiter’s gravity might even be hot enough that if Europa’s mantle encounters the water it might create black smokers, same as we do on the sea floor on Earth, environments which—at least on our world—harbor life.

This graphic shows a possible robotic lander for a future mission to Jupiter's moon Europa. Scientists want such a spacecraft equipped with the tools to answer key questions about the moon's composition, geological activity and possibility of hosting liquid water. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This graphic shows a possible robotic lander for a future mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa. Scientists want such a spacecraft equipped with the tools to answer key questions about the moon’s composition, geological activity, and possibility of hosting liquid water. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“The Obama Administration has taken an important step in laying the groundwork for a mission to Europa with its FY 2015 budget proposal,” said NASA spokesman David Weaver in a statement to the Washington Post. “NASA is in the early stages of mission formulation and we intend to use the funds proposed in next year’s budget – along with the money already approved by Congress – to help research the scope of a Europa mission. We also plan to get additional input from the science community on how best to execute a scientifically significant mission.”

Several mission concepts have been proposed in past years, including both a lander mission and an orbital one, but the most affordable mission concept is the “Europa Clipper.” The mission, estimated at a cost of $2 billion, could launch as early as 2021, making a six-year journey to Jupiter and going into orbit around the giant planet to make flybys of Europa, rather than orbiting Europa itself. Each flyby, some as close as 15 miles above Europa’s surface, would give the Clipper a chance to explore Europa with ice-penetrating radar, a topographical imager, a magnetometer, an infrared spectrometer, a neutral mass spectrometer, and a high-gain antenna. Reconnaissance by the Clipper would also scope out potential landing sites for a future mission.

Another popular Europa mission concept, known as the Jupiter Europa Orbiter (JEO), was actually ranked by the 2011 Planetary Science Decadal Survey as the second-highest priority mission—second only to a Mars sample-return mission. That same survey, however, also said the JEO mission’s $4.7 billion price tag was simply too high.

A third concept under study by NASA is arguably the most exciting of them all: a mission to land two spacecraft on Europa’s surface. Launching two spacecraft would increase the odds of a successful landing, should one fail. The mission, proposed in 2011, would seek out various organic chemicals through use of a mass spectrometer on each vehicle. Both spacecraft would also be equipped with cameras and seismometers to study Europa’s geology in detail. Jupiter’s lethal radiation, however, would make for a short mission, with each lander designed to survive for seven days before the high levels of radiation takes it toll.

Although NASA’s FY2015 budget requests $15 million to begin formulating a mission to Europa it’s likely the space agency will receive much more than that, with as much as $100 million not out of the question considering the political support backing the mission. The space agency is expected to put out a “Request for Information,” or RFI, very soon, asking the science and engineering community for ideas on what the mission might look like.

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