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Interest in an Europa mission heats up at NASA and in Congress

NASA (public domain)

Interest in some sort of Europa mission seems to be heating up to some extent. NASA announced on Tuesday that it is seeking proposals for 25 scientific instruments for such an endeavor. In the meantime, Space Politics reports on an event held by the Planetary Society in the Capitol Hill meeting room of the House Science Committee called “The Lure of Europa” which was well attended by members of Congress, NASA officials, and others.

Ever since Congress passed $100 million in funding toward a mission to Europa, NASA has finally decided to plan seriously to define such an undertaking. Thus far the assumption is that the mission is going to be capped at $1 billion, making it a bare bones endeavor where a moon of the outer planets is concerned. There is some indication that at least a few members of Congress are interested in making a Europa mission a lot larger, thus a lot more expensive.

NASA has requested that industry submit ideas for scientific instruments for a potential Europa mission with a deadline of October, 2014. 20 such instruments will be selected on April, 2015. At that point the space agency will provide $25 million for further refinement of the proposed instruments with a view of selected eight to fly on the eventual mission. They would have to be designed to answer the following questions:

  • Characterize the extent of the ocean and its relation to the deeper interior
  • Characterize the ice shell and any subsurface water, including their heterogeneity, and the nature of surface-ice-ocean exchange
  • Determine global surface, compositions and chemistry, especially as related to habitability
  • Understand the formation of surface features, including sites of recent or current activity, identify and characterize candidate sites for future detailed exploration
  • Understand Europa's space environment and interaction with the magnetosphere.

In the meantime the Planetary Society event was attended by Rep, John Culberson, R-Texas and Rep Adam Schiff, D-California. This is significant because Culberson and Schiff are members of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees NASA funding. Culberson is slated to become that subcommittee’s chairman in the next Congress and will thus have a powerful say in what gets spent at NASA.

Culberson is an especially warm supporter for a mission to Europa, despite the fact that such an undertaking would not bring much funding to Texas. He is one of those rare members of Congress who harbors an enthusiasm for space exploration for its own sake as well as for what good it might do for his district. Schiff’s district contains NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, so his enthusiasm for Europa is understandable.

What that mission will look like remains uncertain. Will it really cost just $1 billion or will Culberson and Schiff be able to spend more? Will it consist of multiple flybys or will it be a proper orbiter. The most intriguing possibility is that it might be sized for the upcoming heavy lift rocket, the Space Launch System. The Europa mission could be huge and arrive at Europa just three years after departing Earth on a direct route instead of six and a half years requiring multiple gravitational boosts such as previous missions to the Outer Planets have required.

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