NASA Planning for Possible Landings on Europa


All these worlds are yours except Europa
Attempt no landing there
Use them together use them in peace 

Despite that famous cryptic warning in the film 2010: The Year We Make Contact, NASA is planning for a possible attempted landing on Jupiter’s moon Europa. This is a mission that many people have been hoping for, since Europa is believed to have a liquid water ocean beneath the icy surface (as well as lakes within the surface crust itself), making it a prime location in the search for life elsewhere in the solar system. Two landers are being proposed which would launch in 2020 and land about six years later.

As stated by Kevin Hand of JPL, “Europa, I think, is the premier place to go for extant life. Europa really does give us this opportunity to look for living life in the ocean that is there today, and has been there for much of the history of the solar system.”

While the landers wouldn’t be able to access the ocean water which is well below the surface, they could analyze the surface composition with a mass spectrometer, seismometers and cameras. The mass spectrometer could detect organics on the surface if there are any. The landers probably wouldn’t last too long though, because of the intense radiation from Jupiter on the unprotected surface (as Europa has only a very slight, tenuous atmosphere). Accessing any of the water from its ocean or lakes would require drilling deep down, something for a more advanced future mission.

Another mission being considered is a Europa orbiter, which could also launch in 2020. In some ways that might be even better, as it could provide a broader detailed study of the moon over a longer time period. Of course if both missions could be done, that would be fantastic, but budgets will probably only allow for one of them. The lander mission is estimated to probably cost about $800 million to $2 billion, while an orbiter would cost about $4.7 billion.

It might be noted that a return mission to Saturn’s moon Enceladus would also be possible, especially since the water from its subsurface ocean or sea (depending on the various working models of its interior and geology) can be sampled directly from its water vapour geysers, no need to drill down. The Cassini spacecraft has already done that more than once, and has found organics of various complexities, but Cassini’s instruments can’t detect life itself.

Either destination would be exciting, as both are thought to be two of the most likely places in the solar system, besides Earth of course, to be inhabitable or even possibly inhabited. Everywhere on Earth where there is water, there is life. That may or may not be true for Europa or Enceladus, but we’ll never know unless we look.

30 Replies to “NASA Planning for Possible Landings on Europa”

    1. Well, for 100 years we now know: Everything’s relative.

      Just recently a bank in Germany (under protection of the government!) found that they made a small error in their calculations. They just lowered Germany’s debt by 55 billion €.

      One could build 10 LHCs from that plus running them for several decades!

      I agree with you, Ivan: Make of that what you will.

    2. “a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier [costs about the same…]”

      An orbiter would cost about $4.7 billlion.

      Make of that what you will. I did.

  1. NASA no puedes dejar de venir a la Ciudad más Espacial. Te esperamos en Jerez de la Frontera. Os esperamos Astros. Traed lápices en forma de cohetes. Hay muchos niños. También soltaremos globos

    1. Babelfish translation: “NASA you cannot stop coming to the Space City. We hoped to you in Sherry of the Border. We waited for Stars to you. You bring pencils in the form of rockets. There are many children. Also we will loosen globes”

  2. These missions are planned for 2020, which means they might launch in 2035 if we’re lucky. I would say that there is about a 10% chance of any of these missions happening.

    1. A 15 year launch delay? What is that prediction based on? The past few missions have been delayed 2 or 3 years at most.

      However, 10% seems optimistic for a mission that as yet hasn’t left paper. I would be surprised if even 5% of proposed missions go ahead into the construction stages. And even then, missions can get repurposed and spacecraft parts recycled into new missions.

  3. The landers could melt a part of themselves through the ice to provide some radiation protection. Like a bullet recessed into a block of ice, only the primer cap slightly sticking outward for antennas and cameras, ect. (More of a penetrator than a lander) As a bonus, we could get a several meter deep core-sample, and test thermal drilling technology before sending deeper exploration missions. Not probing, more like ‘nailing’ europa. Well we can only imagine and dream at this point.

  4. I’d rather them make the trip to Enceladus. Driving around the cue ball of Europa without a drill would seem unsatisfying. It would only suggest things that we’d only have to send another, much later mission to comfirm. Besides, we could drop off a small satellite for Titan while we’re at it, much like Phobos Grunt was supposed to do.

    1. I tend to agree. If these moons have sub-surface oceans with life it makes sense to include a fly-through probe for a spacecraft which goes to Saturn. The fly-through probe would orbit through the geyser plumes of Enceladus to capture the material being shot into space.

      Landing spacecraft on gravitating bodies costs a lot, and even more if there is no atmosphere there. You have to use considerable fuel to match orbital speed with the planet or moon and then retro-rocket to the surface. In the case of Europa heat shield braking and parachutes can’t be used.


      1. Good point, why drill to the ocean when the ocean is coming up to us??
        As to landing on Enceladus, basically no problem. Saturn can be used to orient a space craft with minimal fuel consumption. It might even serve to slow a vehicle which uses its atmosphere to brake. As far as I can figure, Enceladus has a force of gravity approx 1 100th of ours. 0.114 m/s2 (0.011 3 g) A 500 kilogram lander would only weigh 5 kilograms. Retro rockets would be just fine.

      2. You don’t even need to land on Enceladus. A small probe from the main spacecraft could just fly through the geyser material and collect it and then rendevous back to the main craft. From there samples could be robotically tested or if the money is there they could be sent back to Earth on a return craft.

        Of course landing on Enceladus would be more fuel econonomical than Europa. You still need to match the craft velocity with the orbital velocity of the moon.


    1. The idea has been talked about, but it would be a mission some ways in the future…

      1. Unfortunately, Russia’s use of a borehole that has been heavily contaminated with kerosene and freon threatens the pristine nature of Lake Vostok. I don’t understand the rush to complete this project when more sensible alternatives exist (eg. testing smaller, more isolated lakes, using an uncontaminated borehole).

        The relevant wiki entry and refs therein:

      2. Correct. I was addressing the “no technology exist to safely drill” comment.

        – If everything goes well, the Vostok water will freeze in the hole and be harmless while no kerosene/freon liquid will enter the lake.

        – If everything goes maximally unlucky, the sterile drill solution will enter the lake. Still the lake will be isolated and the minute amount of antibacterial solution will be harmless for the lake.

        The drilling won’t threaten the lake as far as I understand.

  5. What is the proposed power source for these missions? Given the current Pu-238 crisis, the inability of the government to solve the problem any time soon, and the inherent long time to renew production at a sufficient scale, I don’t see that as an option 8 years from now.

    1. The upcoming Jupiter missions are intending to use solar panels. More efficient photovoltaics, combined with more efficient electronics, makes that possible.

      That would probably not suffice for drilling (or rovers) though.

      For Saturn missions you would need RTGs any which way, I take it.

      1. I stand corrected then. Did not know that Juno uses solar power. But yes, at twice the distance from the sun as Jupiter, a Saturn mission will most likely require an RTG.

      2. gas giants have powerful magnetic fields.
        an orbiter inserted into an elliptical polar orbit could simply deploy coils of copper wire to harvest a surfeit of power on each pass.
        it could be used to charge banks of supercapacitors or batteries.

        tracking MASERS could be used to supply (beam) power to landers.

        the high energy environments around Jupiter and Saturn are DANGEROUS!
        why would we think we need to take power supplies there?
        the real problem will be shielding and transient isolation!

      3. I wouldn’t know how feasible that is. I was being more specific on the upcoming missions in this decade and the next.

        Nevertheless, how would you provide power during the journey to the planet? Traveling there itself takes up the great majority of the mission duration.

      4. the induction method is supplemental not a replacement.
        it would only work after orbit had been achieved.
        solar panels would still be needed.

        we could have a massive orbital platform in place and thrumming with energy by the year 2525!

  6. I would prefer Enceladus, even if Europa likely will teach us more about ice moons and their habitability in general.

    – As mentioned below, the mission would be easier, cheaper and admitting dual missions.

    Assuming the new knowledge of Titan’s atmosphere admits aerobraking, and I have read estimates that it will suffice, you don’t need as much delta-v as the Europa mission.

    You can drop off a Titan probe or orbiter before the aerobrake maneuver.

    AFAIU current sweep collection is deemed insufficient to gather enough Enceladus material in one pass. With the above mission profile you can orbit Saturn and sample the plumes with a simple aerogel collector until you have enough and can load the sample return capsule.

    – The same methods used in the new Habitable Exoplanets Catalog has shown that Enceladus biosphere productivity density could easily surpass that of Earth.

    Europa place no better than Mars on a habitability scale. (Though hydrothermal vents can of course maximize productivity locally.)

  7. They should double the double lander mission to both Enceladus and Europa for the same cost of the Europa orbiter, IMHO…

  8. Can we have more missions like these and fewer solar satellites and missions like GRAIL. I know there is plenty to learn from missions like those, but is there anything less thrilling to study than subjects like the solar wind and the moon’s gravity. Missions like these, MAX-C, Kepler, JWST, LISA, and the Terrestrial Planet Finders are what really get me excited.

  9. We definitely need a faster way to get there… so we should continue concentrating on building micro miniaturized ultra light instrumentation. I like the idea of sending not one BIG probe/experiment…but instead sending a cloud of them! Lets start with the Moon though to get a ‘handle’ on ops…

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