March 6, 2014
Jovian moon Europa is the best place to look for extraterrestrial life in solar system. Under its thick layer of ice is an ocean of liquid water kept warm by Jupiter's tidal forces. NASA has begun planning a mission to Europa and $15 million will be allocated to early mission development in 2015.
Jovian moon Europa has a thick layer of ice and ocean of water underneath. Credit: NASA/JPL/Ted Stryk
Of the $17.5 billion that was allocated to NASA in the US federal budget request for 2015, $15 million would fund an early planning of a mission to Jupiter's moon Europa. The moon is covered with a thick layer of ice, under which is an ocean of water. If there's life anywhere else in the solar system beside Earth, this is where scientists hope to find it.
"Europa is a very challenging mission operating in a really high radiation environment, and there's lots to do to prepare for it," said Beth Robinson, NASA's CFO. "We're looking for a launch sometime in the mid-2020s."
At this point the best candidate for the launch is a concept named Europa Clipper. NASA has been developing it for years, but right now it is estimated it would cost about $2 billion to carry out the mission.
"The Europa Clipper is what we would call a flagship, and right now the budget horizon is such that we're deferring that kind of mission until later in the decade," said Jim Green, head of NASA's planetary science division.
This leaves the possibility for other concepts and NASA will reach out to the scientific community to help with the alternative. "I know people have asked about the total size [of the possible mission], and we're frankly just not sure at this point," Beth Robinson said.
Europa Clipper is a radiation-tolerant probe that would actually orbit Jupiter, but it would make dozens of flybys of Europa. Beside various science instruments like radar, infrared spectrometer, high-resolution camera and ion and neutral mass spectrometer, Europa Clipper could sample recently discovered jets of water erupting from moon's south pole. This would be cheaper than designing a mission that includes landing on the surface.