NASA Seeks Ideas for Mission to Europa

by Shannon Hall on May 5, 2014

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Jupiter's icy moon: Europa. Image Credit: NASA

Jupiter’s icy moon: Europa. Image Credit: NASA

Europa — a moon of Jupiter first discovered by Galileo — never ceases to surprise and amaze astronomers and amateurs alike.

Last December astronomers announced water plumes erupting 100 miles high from the moon’s icy south pole. It was the best evidence yet that Europa, heated internally by the powerful tidal forces generated by Jupiter’s gravity, has a deep subsurface ocean. It caused the search for life in the outer solar system to take quite a turn.

Now, NASA has issued a Request for Information (RFI) to science and engineering communities for ideas for a mission to the enigmatic moon. Any ideas need to address fundamental questions about the subsurface ocean and the search for life beyond Earth.

“This is an opportunity to hear from those creative teams that have ideas on how we can achieve the most science at minimum cost,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, in a press release.

The RFI’s focus is for concepts for a mission that costs less than $1 billion.

“Europa is one of the most interesting sites in our solar system in the search for life beyond Earth,” said Grunsfield. “The drive to explore Europa has stimulated not only scientific interest but also the ingenuity of engineers and scientists with innovative concepts.”

The Decadal Survey deemed a mission to Europa as an extremely high priority for scientific pursuits by NASA. It lists five key science objectives that are necessary to improve our understanding of this potentially habitable moon. Primarily, the mission will need to:

— 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.

Although Europa has been visited by spacecraft and imaged distantly by Hubble, more detailed research is necessary to understand the complexities of this moon and its potential for life. NASA’s Galileo spacecraft, launched in 1989 was the only mission to visit Europa, passing close by the moon fewer than a dozen times.

What are your ideas for a mission to the icy moon? Comment below.

About 

Shannon Hall is a freelance science journalist. She holds two B.A.'s from Whitman College in physics-astronomy and philosophy, and an M.S. in astronomy from the University of Wyoming. Currently, she is working toward a second M.S. from NYU's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting program.

FarAwayLongAgo May 5, 2014 at 2:29 PM

At less than a third of a Mars rover budget, a fast flyby is the only useful option available to Europa. It could hope to image geysers along an entire Europa orbit of 3½ Earth days, and aim at capturing a sample by flying through its likely location. A fast flyby needs little shielding and delivers science results at least a decade earlier than any orbital insertion attempt. So that would happen with a decade more modern instruments than what an orbiter could deliver.

One single flyby of one instrument intensive probe with a decade more modern instruments, might be much better than ten flybys of a one-to-two decade later orbiter which has sacrificed most of its insturment mass to long term radiation shielding. Voyager was a success, let’s do it again! It passed Jupiter within 23 months of launch. New Horizons passed Jupiter 13 months after launch. No need to wait a decade or seven years of pain for the bus to arrive.

A radar which penetrates its ice layers and a laser altimeter to give some details of its surface. So many things a fast flyby could do, besides capturing and analysing its outbursts of water and whatnot. This decade, not in the 2030s.

weeasle May 5, 2014 at 7:53 PM

I tend to agree.. I would like to add that if it were feasible it would be great to add a little more shielding so the probe could do a few flybys – and on two of them to drop impactors. Sort of like deep impact probe. One impactor to the pole and one nearer the equator to help characterise the depth and composition of the ice. Camera’s would watch the plume on impact… And of course drop a few flyers afterwards which read.. “If anyone’s home sorry about that..”

Jim E May 6, 2014 at 12:18 AM

I think that the defining characteristic of a flyby as outlined by Farawaylongago is that you only get one pass before following Voyager into interstellar space. It considerbly reduces the launch weight and cost.

weeasle May 6, 2014 at 1:17 AM

sure I get that – Orbital Insertion must be the costly part in terms of cost and time it takes… Maybe just one impactor on a flyby then?

Fraser Cain May 6, 2014 at 7:15 PM

A fast flyby is a great idea, especially if you can line up the spacecraft for a secondary target.

tthopf May 5, 2014 at 3:36 PM

Here’s an idea: blow it off & save the money for stuff that counts. It’s a planet full of crap that we MIGHT need, but getting to it & getting it back here will drain us dry. Our fascination with infesting other worlds with our egotistical desire to dominate & survive is nonsensical. NASA is a sham; all they do is try to justify their existence with this big, wild eyed dreams fabricated by geeks. Fix earth; screw anything further than the moon or incoming chunks of rock.

Jim E May 5, 2014 at 5:31 PM

Who said anything about going there? This is about sending a not-very-big robot to do some science, and the cost is (allowing for inflation) similar to a single shuttle launch.
As for fixing the home planet, that just needs the will. The idea of planet-fixing got a big boost in the public imagination in 1968, at the moment the Apollo 8 astronauts pointed a TV camera back at the earth, live. It entirely fit within the frame, and at the time that blew everyone’s minds. Perhaps we need some more moments like that.

mewo May 6, 2014 at 12:22 AM

Finding life elsewhere in the Solar System would do that. As would ruling it out.

Jeffrey Boerst May 6, 2014 at 4:30 AM

Nice backward thinking imbecility there… One could ALWAYS make the argument that planet-side efforts are more important and further with that attitude we could still be in Europe with the Native Americans all happy and alive still. It’s called, “The Future” and you should really get on board as that’s where we’re all inevitably headed….

superluminous01 May 6, 2014 at 12:45 AM

Send two orbiting spacecrafts like the lunar Grails (USD$221 million + extra push budget :P) but around Jupiter to study Europa with near flybys with field survey equipment for electromagnetic water/ice properties using radar techniques of Time Domain Reflectometry (TDR) which are non-destructive methods for testing, magnetic resonance and whatnot, without actually stepping on the planet and contaminating anything we could find there could be interesting before sending an Europa lander?

Stardocjg May 6, 2014 at 9:04 AM

Whatever the mission’s goals, I have an acronym for this exciting endeavor:
SearCH for Life on Europa Probe or SCHLEP.

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