NASA is planning a mission to Jupiter’s ice moon Europa for sometime in the late 2020s, at least according to the fine print in the organization’s budget submitted to Congress last week.
Talk of a mission has been in the air for some time, but a projected 2022 launch date is being pushed off by NASA. The recent budget that President Barack Obama submitted requests $49.6 million for research ahead of a years-long orbital mission that might include a lander. This is actually less than a third of what the Europe research team got in 2016, $175 million.
“Within our $19 billion request, to find an additional $150 million — whether within the science portfolio or abroad — we felt would upset the balance of the overall portfolio,” NASA CFO David Radzanowski said at a press conference. “So we do not think it’s prudent to support a 2022 launch at the funding level requested.”
A Europa mission carries special importance though for NASA, which has been wrangling for more funding from a fiscally stingy Congress for years. While landing people on Mars would definitely capture the imaginations of people the world over, improve recruitment efforts and galvanize interest in private (and public) funding of more endeavors, Europa’s under-ice global ocean is considered the most likely candidate in the solar system for harboring life according to the NASA Europa Mission’s Project Scientist Robert Pappalardo — and not that pathetic bacterial kind of life, but like cool tentacle-skeletal-glowing-under-water kind of life.
While you can learn infinitely more information from sending a mission than not, this author and others might wonder about the utility of such a massive investment without at least making an effort to land a probe on the icy surface.
“I want to go to Europa and go ice fishing; cut through the ice, lower a submersible and see what’s there, see what swims up to the camera lens and licks it,” Neil deGrasse Tyson has said in the past. Considering that the liquid water ocean might be a billion years old, which is approximately the period in which life has existed on Earth, the possibility that complex multicellular organisms might be on Europa should be considered strong.
The Obama administration has been vocal in the past about allocating more cash to NASA, but some people accuse the president of just paying lip service.
“Well, we’re five for five. This is the fifth year in a row that the White House has proposed cutting NASA’s Planetary Science Division,” bemoaned Casey Dreier, the Planetary Society’s Director of Space Policy. “While every other science division at NASA would receive a funding boost in this budget, Planetary Science, the year after flying by Pluto and confirming flowing water on Mars, earns a $110 million cut.”
It might take much more funding to get a mission off the ground by 2022, but it’s harder to assess how much work and money would be needed to get something like the VALKYRIE on board that rocket. Dreier offered some, well, dryer comments about what the budget spin meant for getting to the Jovian ice moon.
“As expected, most of the cut appears to impact the Europa mission . . . The administration is sticking with its intent to launch in the late 2020s. The request tones down some of the optimistic planning for the Europa flyby mission set forth in last year’s budget. NASA runs the numbers to assume an Atlas V launch, not SLS, though SLS is very much under consideration.”
Meanwhile, innovators on the Earth’s surface are far ahead of Tyson’s comments. Stone Aerospace has produced and already tested (with NASA’s help) the VALKYRIE, a high-energy-laser-infused heat drill designed explicitly for exploring Europa. The device can only drill one meter per hour, or eight kilometers per year if it goes uninterrupted. The alpha design would be much larger and drill much faster. To make it a mission that humanity’s collective impatience could tolerate, it would need to pierce Europa’s 30 kilometer-thick ice sheet more rapidly.