Thu. Mar 23rd, 2023
Concept art for NASA's flyby mission to Europe.

Concept art for NASA’s flyby mission to Europe.


Planetary scientists have identified Europa’s icy moon of Jupiter as one of their prime targets for exploration, believing its warm inner oceans could be home to life. A new study just published this week, written by scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, found that ocean conditions on Europa may indeed be Earth-like and capable of supporting life.

Despite the planetary science community’s desire to further explore Europa, NASA was hesitant to mount such a mission because of the high cost — well over $1 billion. In addition, planetary science has not been a priority in President Obama’s NASA budgets, and the space agency has preferred to focus most of its solar system exploration with robots on Mars. The red planet is easier to reach, and NASA says it wants to explore Mars further to enable future human missions.

Congress, however, is more interested in planetary science. And the chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee in charge of NASA’s budget, John Culberson (R-Texas), has a particular fondness for Europe. Even when NASA wasn’t asking for Europa funds, the congressman funneled money to the scientists at the California-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Between fiscal years 2013 and 2016, NASA requested only $45 million in Europe funding, but Congress allocated $395 million. For fiscal 2017, NASA requested $49.6 million in Europe funding, but a House appropriations bill released this week by the Culberson committee proposes $260 million for mission planning and development.

As part of the mission to Europe, Culberson would also like to send a lander to the surface of the heaving, icy world. This would allow scientists to better characterize the oceans below and, if the lander lands near a fissure, possibly even sample the ocean. However, there has been some concern that it would prove too challenging to perform both an orbiting spacecraft and a lander in a single mission with a single rocket.

So as part of the House’s new bill, the Europa mission will be divided into two parts: an orbiter and, two years later, a lander. The plan would be for the orbiter spacecraft to dive down into the harsh radiation environment near Europa (due to the moon’s proximity to Jupiter) and back out to send data back to Earth. The nominal mission would perform at least 45 flybys of Europa at altitudes ranging from 2,700 km to 25 km above the surface. By reviewing this data, scientists on Earth could determine where best to place their lander on the surface two years later.

“We have increased funding for planetary programs and ensured that we will complete the incredibly important mission to Europe that mapped the planetary decadal survey because of the very high probability of life being discovered in those oceans,” Culberson said. during a hearing. Tuesday. “This will be a transformative moment in the history of humanity and the nation.”

In its Europa mission documents, NASA has not formally approved a lander, stating only that the flyby mission will launch “sometime in the 2020s.” The House bill is much more specific, calling for an orbiter launch by 2022 and a lander launch by 2024. Senior officials at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have told Culberson those dates are achievable. In addition, the bill specifies that NASA’s next budget, for fiscal year 2018, will include a five-year funding profile to support those two launches.

NASA last visited the Jupiter system in the 1990s and early 2000s with the Galileo spacecraft. Galileo took pictures of Europe during 11 flybys, but the best of those photos had a resolution of only about 10 meters per pixel. The spacecraft stored those images on a tape recorder with a capacity of 114 megabytes, but a flawed rewind mode hampered even that humble device. Still, these limited data were enough to excite scientists, and Europa has been a target of intense interest for planetary scientists ever since.

By akfire1

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