Europa’s Venting Global Ocean May Be Easier To Reach Than We Thought

Last week, on Tuesday, September 20th, NASA announced that they had made some interesting findings about Jupiter’s icy moon Europa. These were based on images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, the details of which would be released on the following week. Needless to say, since then, the scientific community and general public have been waiting with baited breath.

Earlier today (September 26th) NASA put an end to the waiting and announced the Hubble findings during a NASA Live conference. According to the NASA panel, which was made up of members of the research team, this latest Europa-observing mission revealed evidence of plumes of saline water emanating from Europa’s surface. If true, this would mean that the moon’s subsurface ocean would be more accessible than previously thought.

Using Hubble’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) instrument, the team conducted observations of Jupiter and Europa in the ultra-violet spectrum over the course of 15 months. During that time, Europa passed in front of Jupiter (occulted the gas giant) on 10 separate occasions.

And on three of these occasions, the team saw what appeared to be plumes of water erupting from the surface. These plumes were estimated to be reaching up to 200 km (125 miles) from the southern region of Europa before (presumably) raining back onto the surface, depositing water ice and material from the interior.

The purpose of the observation was to examine Europa’s possible extended atmosphere (aka. exosphere). The method the team employed was similar to the one used to detect atmospheres around extra-solar planets. As William Sparks of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore (and the team leader), explained in a NASA press release:

“The atmosphere of an extrasolar planet blocks some of the starlight that is behind it. If there is a thin atmosphere around Europa, it has the potential to block some of the light of Jupiter, and we could see it as a silhouette. And so we were looking for absorption features around the limb of Europa as it transited the smooth face of Jupiter.”

When they looked at Europa using this same technique, they noted that small patches on the surface were dark, indicating the absorption of UV light. This corresponded to previous work done by Lorenz Roth (of the Southwest Research Institute) and his team of researchers in 2012. At this time, they detected evidence of water vapor coming from Europa’s southern polar region.

Europa transit illustration. Europa orbits Jupiter every 3 and a half days, and on every orbit it passes in front of Jupiter, raising the possibility of plumes being seen as silhouettes absorbing the background light of Jupiter. Credits: A. Field (STScI)
Europa transit illustration. Europa orbits Jupiter every 3 and a half days, and on every orbit it passes in front of Jupiter, raising the possibility of plumes being seen as silhouettes absorbing the background light of Jupiter. Credits: A. Field (STScI)

As they indicated in a paper detailing their results – titled “Transient Water Vapor at Europa’s South Pole” – Roth’s team also relied on UV observations made using the Hubble telescope. Noting a statistically coincident amount of hydrogen and oxygen emissions, they concluded that this was the result of ejected water vapor being broken apart by Jupiter’s radiation (a process known as radiolysis).

Though their methods differed, Sparks and his research team also found evidence of these apparent water plumes, and in the same place no less. Based on the latest information from STIS, most of the apparent plumes are located in the moon’s southern polar region while another appears to be located in the equatorial region.

“When we calculate in a completely different way the amount of material that would be needed to create these absorption features, it’s pretty similar to what Roth and his team found,” Sparks said. “The estimates for the mass are similar, the estimates for the height of the plumes are similar. The latitude of two of the plume candidates we see corresponds to their earlier work.”

Another interesting conclusion to come from this and the 2012 study is the likelihood that these water plumes are intermittent. Basically, Europa is tidally-locked world, which means the same side is always being presented to us when it transits Jupiter. This occus once every 3.5 days, thus giving astronomers and planetary scientists plenty of viewing opportunities.

 This composite image shows suspected plumes of water vapor erupting at the 7 o’clock position off the limb of Jupiter’s moon Europa. The Hubble data were taken on January 26, 2014. Credit: Credits: NASA/ESA/W. Sparks (STScI)/USGS Astrogeology Science Center
This composite image shows suspected plumes of water vapor erupting at the 7 o’clock position off the limb of Jupiter’s moon Europa. The Hubble data were taken on January 26, 2014. Credit: Credits: NASA/ESA/W. Sparks (STScI)/USGS Astrogeology Science Center

But the fact that plumes have been observed at some points and not others would seem to indicate that they are periodic. In addition, Roth’s team attempted to spot one of the plume’s observed by Sparks and his colleagues a week after they reported it. However, they were unable to locate this supposed water source. As such, it would appear that the plumes, if they do exist, are short-lived.

These findings are immensely significant for two reasons. On the one hand, they are further evidence that a warm-water, saline ocean exists beneath Europa’s icy surface. On the other, they indicate that any future mission to Europa would be able to access this salt-water ocean with greater ease.

Ever since the Galileo spacecraft conducted a flyby of the Jovian moon, scientists have believed that an interior ocean is lying beneath Europa’s icy surface – one that has between two and three times as much water as all of Earth’s oceans combined. However, estimates of the ice’s thickness range from it being between 10 to 30 km (6–19 mi) thick – with a ductile “warm ice” layer that increases its total thickness to as much as 100 km (60 mi).

Knowing the water periodically reaches the surface through fissures in the ice would mean that any future mission (which would likely include a submarine) would not have to drill so deep. And considering that Europa’s interior ocean is considered to be one of our best bets for finding extra-terrestrial life, knowing that the ocean is accessible is certainly exciting news.

A comparison of 2014 transit and 2012 Europa aurora observations. The raw transit image, left, has dark fingers or patches of possible absorption in the same place that a different team (led by Lorenz Roth) found auroral emission from hydrogen and oxygen, the dissociation products of water. Credits: NASA, ESA, W. Sparks (left image) L. Roth (right image)
A comparison of 2014 transit and 2012 Europa aurora observations. Credits: NASA, ESA, W. Sparks (left image) L. Roth (right image)

And the news is certainly causing its fair share of excitement for the people who are currently developing NASA’s proposed Mission to Europa, which is scheduled to launch sometime in the 2020s. As Dr. Cynthia B. Phillips, a Staff Scientist and the Science Communications Lead for the Europa Project, told Universe Today via email:

“This new discovery, using Hubble Space Telescope data, is an intriguing data point that helps lend support to the idea that there are active plumes on Europa today. While not an absolute confirmation, the new Sparks et al. result, in combination with previous observations by Roth et al. (also using HST but with a different technique), is consistent with the presence of intermittent plumes ejecting water vapor from the Southern Hemisphere of Europa. Such observations are difficult to perform from Earth, however, even with Hubble, and thus these results remain inconclusive.

“Confirming the presence or absence of plumes on Europa, as well as investigating many other mysteries of this icy ocean world, will require a dedicated spacecraft in the Jupiter system.   NASA currently plans to send a multiple-flyby spacecraft to Europa, which would make many close passes by Europa in the next decade. The spacecraft’s powerful suite of scientific instruments will be able to study Europa’s surface and subsurface in unprecedented detail, and if plumes do exist, it will be able to observe them directly and even potentially measure their composition.  Until the Europa spacecraft is in place, however, Earth-based observations such as the new Hubble Space Telescope results will remain our best technique to observe Jupiter’s mysterious moon.”

Naturally, Sparks was clear that this latest information was not entirely conclusive. While he believes that the results were statistically significant, and that there were no indications of artifacts in the data, he also emphasized that observations conducted in the UV wavelength are tricky. Therefore, more evidence is needed before anything can be said definitively.

In the future, it is hoped that future observation will help to confirm the existence of water plumes, and how these could have helped create Europa’s “chaos terrain”. Future missions, like NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (scheduled to launch in 2018) could help confirm plume activity by observing the moon in infrared wavelengths.

As Paul Hertz, the director of the Astrophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said:

“Hubble’s unique capabilities enabled it to capture these plumes, once again demonstrating Hubble’s ability to make observations it was never designed to make. This observation opens up a world of possibilities, and we look forward to future missions — such as the James Webb Space Telescope — to follow up on this exciting discovery.”

Other team members include Britney Schmidt, an assistant professor at the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta; and Jennifer Wiseman, senior Hubble project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Their work will be published in the Sept. 29 issue of the Astrophysical Journal.

And be sure to enjoy this video by NASA about this exciting find:

Further Reading: NASA Live

NASA Gives ‘GO’ for Mission to Alien Ocean World at Jupiter Moon Europa

Artist’s concept of NASA mission streaking over ocean world of Europa. Credit: NASA/JPL
Story updated[/caption]

At long last NASA is heading back to Jupiter’s mysterious moon Europa and doing so in a big way – because scientists believe it harbors an alien ocean of water beneath an icy crust and therefore is “one of the most promising places in the solar system to search for signs of present-day life” beyond Earth.

Top NASA officials have now formally and officially green lighted the Europa ocean world robotic mission and given it the “GO” to move from early conceptual studies into development of the interplanetary spacecraft and mission hardware, to search for the chemical constituents of life.

“Today we’re taking an exciting step from concept to mission, in our quest to find signs of life beyond Earth,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, in a NASA statement.

The goal is to investigate the habitability of Europa’s subsurface ocean, determine if it possesses the ingredients for life and advance our understanding of “Are we Alone?”

“Observations of Europa have provided us with tantalizing clues over the last two decades, and the time has come to seek answers to one of humanity’s most profound questions,” said Grunsfeld.

Water is a prerequisite for life as we know it.

“We know that on Earth everywhere there is water we find life,” says Robert Pappalardo, Europa mission project scientist.

“Therefore Europa is the most likely place to find life in our solar system today because we think there is a liquid water ocean beneath its surface.”

Video caption: Alien Ocean: NASA’s Mission to Europa. Could a liquid water ocean beneath the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa have the ingredients to support life? Here’s how NASA’s mission to Europa would find out. Credit: NASA

After a thorough review of the mission concept, managers agreed that it “successfully completed its first major review by the agency and now is entering the development phase known as formulation

“It’s a great day for science,” said Joan Salute, Europa program executive at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

“We are thrilled to pass the first major milestone in the lifecycle of a mission that will ultimately inform us on the habitability of Europa.”

In a major milestone leading up to this mission development approval, NASA managers recently announced the selection of the nine science instruments that will fly on the agency’s long awaited planetary science mission to this intriguing world that many scientists suspect could support life, as I reported here last month.

“We are trying to answer big questions. Are we alone,” said Grunsfeld at the May 26 media briefing.

“The young surface seems to be in contact with an undersea ocean.”

This 12-frame mosaic provides the highest resolution view ever obtained of the side of Jupiter's moon Europa that faces the giant planet. It was obtained on Nov. 25, 1999 by the camera onboard the Galileo spacecraft, a past NASA mission to Jupiter and its moons. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
This 12-frame mosaic provides the highest resolution view ever obtained of the side of Jupiter’s moon Europa that faces the giant planet. It was obtained on Nov. 25, 1999 by the camera onboard the Galileo spacecraft, a past NASA mission to Jupiter and its moons. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Planetary scientists have long desired a speedy to return on Europa, ever since the groundbreaking discoveries of NASA’s Galileo Jupiter orbiter in the 1990s showed that the alien world possessed a substantial and deep subsurface ocean beneath an icy shell that appears to interact with and alter the moon’s surface in recent times.

NASA’s Europa mission would blastoff perhaps as soon as 2022, depending on the budget allocation and rocket selection – whose candidates include the heavy lift Space Launch System (SLS) now under development to launch astronauts on deep space expedition to the Moon, Asteroids and Mars.

The solar powered Europa probe will go into orbit around Jupiter for a three year mission in order to minimize exposure to the intense radiation region that could harm the spacecraft.

The Europa mission goal is to investigate whether the tantalizing icy Jovian moon, similar in size to Earth’s moon, could harbor conditions suitable for the evolution and sustainability of life in the suspected ocean.

It will be equipped with high resolution cameras, spectrometers and radar, several generations beyond anything before to map the surface in unprecedented detail and determine the moon’s composition and subsurface character. And it will search for subsurface lakes and seek to sample erupting vapor plumes like those occurring today on Saturn’s tiny moon Enceladus.

There will many opportunities for close flybys of Europa during the three year primary mission to conduct unprecedented studies of the composition and structure of the surface, icy shell and oceanic interior.

“During the three year mission, the orbiter will conduct 45 close flyby’s of Europa,” Curt Niebur, Europa program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington, told Universe Today.

“These will occur about every two to three weeks.”

The close flyby’s will vary in altitude from 16 miles to 1,700 miles (25 kilometers to 2,700 kilometers).

Europa rising. The icy moon hangs above Jupiter cloud tops in a @NASANewHorizons image from 2007.  Credit: NASA
Europa rising. The icy moon hangs above Jupiter cloud tops in a @NASANewHorizons image from 2007. Credit: NASA

The mission currently has a budget of about $10 million for 2015 and $30 Million in 2016. Over the next three years the mission concept will be further defined.

The mission will be managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California and is expected to cost in the range of at least $2 Billion or more.

The nine science instruments are described in my earlier story- here. They will be developed and built by Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL); JPL; Arizona State University, Tempe; the University of Texas at Austin; Southwest Research Institute, San Antonio and the University of Colorado, Boulder.

This artist's rendering shows a concept for a future NASA mission to Europa in which a spacecraft would make multiple close flybys of the icy Jovian moon, thought to contain a global subsurface ocean.  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This artist’s rendering shows a concept for a future NASA mission to Europa in which a spacecraft would make multiple close flybys of the icy Jovian moon, thought to contain a global subsurface ocean. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Right now there is another NASA probe bound for Jupiter, the solar powered Juno orbiter that will investigate the origin of the gas giant. But Juno will not be conducting any observations or flyby’s of Europa.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about SpaceX, Europa, Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Jun 25-27: “SpaceX launch, Orion, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, MMS, Antares and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

NASA Selects Mission Science Instruments Searching for Habitability of Jupiter’s Ocean Moon Europa

In a major move forward on a long dreamed of mission to investigate the habitability of the subsurface ocean of Jupiter’s mysterious moon Europa, top NASA officials announced today, Tuesday, May 26, the selection of nine science instruments that will fly on the agency’s long awaited planetary science mission to an intriguing world that many scientists suspect could support life.

“We are on our way to Europa,” proclaimed John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, at a media briefing today outlining NASA’s plans for a mission dedicated to launching in the early to mid-2020s. “It’s a mission to inspire.”

“We are trying to answer big questions. Are we alone?”

“The young surface seems to be in contact with an undersea ocean.”

The Europa mission goal is to investigate whether the tantalizing icy Jovian moon, similar in size to Earth’s moon, could harbor conditions suitable for the evolution and sustainability of life in the suspected ocean.

It will be equipped with high resolution cameras, radar and spectrometers, several generations beyond anything before to map the surface in unprecedented detail and determine the moon’s composition and subsurface character. And it will search for subsurface lakes and seek to sample erupting vapor plumes like those occurring today on Saturn’s tiny moon Enceladus.

“Europa has tantalized us with its enigmatic icy surface and evidence of a vast ocean, following the amazing data from 11 flybys of the Galileo spacecraft over a decade ago and recent Hubble observations suggesting plumes of water shooting out from the moon,” says Grunsfeld.

“We’re excited about the potential of this new mission and these instruments to unravel the mysteries of Europa in our quest to find evidence of life beyond Earth.”

Planetary scientists have long desired a speedy return on Europa, ever since the groundbreaking discoveries of NASA’s Galileo Jupiter orbiter in the 1990s showed that the alien world possessed a substantial and deep subsurface ocean beneath an icy shell that appears to interact with and alter the surface in recent times.

This 12-frame mosaic provides the highest resolution view ever obtained of the side of Jupiter's moon Europa that faces the giant planet. It was obtained on Nov. 25, 1999 by the camera onboard the Galileo spacecraft, a past NASA mission to Jupiter and its moons. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
This 12-frame mosaic provides the highest resolution view ever obtained of the side of Jupiter’s moon Europa that faces the giant planet. It was obtained on Nov. 25, 1999 by the camera onboard the Galileo spacecraft, a past NASA mission to Jupiter and its moons. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

NASA’s Europa mission would blastoff perhaps as soon as 2022, depending on the budget allocation and rocket selection, whose candidates include the heavy lift Space Launch System (SLS).

The solar powered probe will go into orbit around Jupiter for a three year mission.

“The mission concept is that it will conduct multiple flyby’s of Europa,” said Jim Green. director, Planetary Science Division, NASA Headquarters, during the briefing.

“The purpose is to determine if Europa is a habitable place. It shows few craters, a brown gum on the surface and cracks where the subsurface meet the surface. There may be organics and nutrients among the discoloration at the surface.”

Europa is at or near the top of the list for most likely places in our solar system that could support life. Mars is also near the top of the list and currently being explored by a fleet of NASA robotic probes including surface rovers Curiosity and Opportunity.

“Europa is one of those critical areas where we believe that the environment is just perfect for potential development of life,” said Green. “This mission will be that step that helps us understand that environment and hopefully give us an indication of how habitable the environment could be.”

The exact thickness of Europa’s ice shell and extent of its subsurface ocean is not known.

The ice shell thickness has been inferred by some scientists to be perhaps only 5 to 10 kilometers thick based on data from Galileo, the Hubble Space Telescope, a Cassini flyby and other ground and space based observations.

The global ocean might be twice the volume of all of Earth’s water. Research indicates that it is salty, may possess organics, and has a rocky sea floor. Tidal heating from Jupiter could provide the energy for mixing and chemical reactions, supplemented by undersea volcanoes spewing heat and minerals to support living creatures, if they exist.

This artist's rendering shows a concept for a future NASA mission to Europa in which a spacecraft would make multiple close flybys of the icy Jovian moon, thought to contain a global subsurface ocean.  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This artist’s rendering shows a concept for a future NASA mission to Europa in which a spacecraft would make multiple close flybys of the icy Jovian moon, thought to contain a global subsurface ocean. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“Europa could be the best place in the solar system to look for present day life beyond our home planet,” says NASA officials.

The instruments chosen today by NASA will help answer the question of habitability, but they are not life detection instruments in and of themselves. That would require a follow on mission.

“They could find indications of life, but they’re not life detectors,” said Curt Niebur, Europa program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “We currently don’t even have consensus in the scientific community as to what we would measure that would tell everybody with confidence this thing you’re looking at is alive. Building a life detector is incredibly difficult.”

‘During the three year mission, the orbiter will conduct 45 close flyby’s of Europa,” Niebur told Universe Today. “These will occur about every two to three weeks.”

The close flyby’s will vary in altitude from 16 miles to 1,700 miles (25 kilometers to 2,700 kilometers).

“The mass spectrometer has a range of 1 to 2000 daltons, Niebur told me. “That’s a much wider range than Cassini. However there will be no means aboard to determine chirality.” The presence of Chiral compounds could be an indicator of life.

Right now the Europa mission is in the formulation stage with a budget of about $10 million this year and $30 Million in 2016. Over the next three years the mission concept will be defined.

The mission is expected to cost in the range of at least $2 Billion or more.

Jupiter Moon Europa, Ice Rafting View
Jupiter Moon Europa, Ice Rafting View

Here’s a NASA description of the 9 instruments selected:

Plasma Instrument for Magnetic Sounding (PIMS) — principal investigator Dr. Joseph Westlake of Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), Laurel, Maryland. This instrument works in conjunction with a magnetometer and is key to determining Europa’s ice shell thickness, ocean depth, and salinity by correcting the magnetic induction signal for plasma currents around Europa.

Interior Characterization of Europa using Magnetometry (ICEMAG)
— principal investigator Dr. Carol Raymond of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, California. This magnetometer will measure the magnetic field near Europa and – in conjunction with the PIMS instrument – infer the location, thickness and salinity of Europa’s subsurface ocean using multi-frequency electromagnetic sounding.


Mapping Imaging Spectrometer for Europa (MISE)
— principal investigator Dr. Diana Blaney of JPL. This instrument will probe the composition of Europa, identifying and mapping the distributions of organics, salts, acid hydrates, water ice phases, and other materials to determine the habitability of Europa’s ocean.

Europa Imaging System (EIS) — principal investigator Dr. Elizabeth Turtle of APL. The wide and narrow angle cameras on this instrument will map most of Europa at 50 meter (164 foot) resolution, and will provide images of areas of Europa’s surface at up to 100 times higher resolution.

Radar for Europa Assessment and Sounding: Ocean to Near-surface (REASON) — principal investigator Dr. Donald Blankenship of the University of Texas, Austin. This dual-frequency ice penetrating radar instrument is designed to characterize and sound Europa’s icy crust from the near-surface to the ocean, revealing the hidden structure of Europa’s ice shell and potential water within.

Europa Thermal Emission Imaging System (E-THEMIS) — principal investigator Dr. Philip Christensen of Arizona State University, Tempe. This “heat detector” will provide high spatial resolution, multi-spectral thermal imaging of Europa to help detect active sites, such as potential vents erupting plumes of water into space.

MAss SPectrometer for Planetary EXploration/Europa (MASPEX) — principal investigator Dr. Jack (Hunter) Waite of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), San Antonio. This instrument will determine the composition of the surface and subsurface ocean by measuring Europa’s extremely tenuous atmosphere and any surface material ejected into space.

Ultraviolet Spectrograph/Europa (UVS) — principal investigator Dr. Kurt Retherford of SwRI. This instrument will adopt the same technique used by the Hubble Space Telescope to detect the likely presence of water plumes erupting from Europa’s surface. UVS will be able to detect small plumes and will provide valuable data about the composition and dynamics of the moon’s rarefied atmosphere.

SUrface Dust Mass Analyzer (SUDA) — principal investigator Dr. Sascha Kempf of the University of Colorado, Boulder. This instrument will measure the composition of small, solid particles ejected from Europa, providing the opportunity to directly sample the surface and potential plumes on low-altitude flybys.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Obama Administration Proposes $18.5 Billion Budget for NASA – Bolden

The Obama Administration today (Feb. 2) proposed a NASA budget allocation of $18.5 Billion for the new Fiscal Year 2016, which amounts to a half-billion dollar increase over the enacted budget for FY 2015, and keeps the key manned capsule and heavy lift rocket programs on track to launch humans to deep space in the next decade and significantly supplements the commercial crew initiative to send our astronauts to low Earth orbit and the space station later this decade.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden formally announced the rollout of NASA’s FY 2016 budget request today during a “state of the agency” address at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), back dropped by the three vehicles at the core of the agency’s human spaceflight exploration strategy; Orion, the Boeing CST-100 and the SpaceX Dragon.

“To further advance these plans and keep on moving forward on our journey to Mars, President Obama today is proposing an FY 2016 budget of $18.5 billion for NASA, building on the significant investments the administration has made in America’s space program over the past six years,” Administrator Bolden said to NASA workers and the media gathered at the KSC facility where Orion is being manufactured.

“These vehicles are not things just on paper anymore! This is tangible evidence of what you [NASA] have been doing these past few years.”

In the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building high bay at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden delivers a “state of the agency” address on Feb 2, 2015 at NASA's televised fiscal year 2016 budget rollout event.   Photo credit: NASA/Gianni Woods
In the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building high bay at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden delivers a “state of the agency” address on Feb 2, 2015 at NASA’s televised fiscal year 2016 budget rollout event. Photo credit: NASA/Gianni Woods

Bolden said the $18.5 Billion budget request will enable the continuation of core elements of NASA’s main programs including first launch of the new commercial crew vehicles to orbit in 2017, maintaining the Orion capsule and the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket to further NASA’s initiative to send ‘Humans to Mars’ in the 2030s, extending the International Space Station (ISS) into the next decade, and launching the James Webb Space Telescope in 2018. JWST is the long awaited successor to NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.

“NASA is firmly on a journey to Mars. Make no mistake, this journey will help guide and define our generation.”

Funding is also provided to enable the manned Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) by around 2025, to continue development of the next Mars rover, and to continue formulation studies of a robotic mission to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa.

“That’s a half billion-dollar increase over last year’s enacted budget, and it is a clear vote of confidence in you – the employees of NASA – and the ambitious exploration program you are executing,” said Bolden.

Overall the additional $500 million for FY 2016 translates to a 2.7% increase over FY 2015. That compares to about a 6.4% proposed boost for the overall US Federal Budget amounting to $4 Trillion.

The Boeing CST-100 and the SpaceX Dragon V2 will restore the US capability to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS).

In September 2014, Bolden announced the selections of Boeing and SpaceX to continue development and certification of their proposed spaceships under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) and Launch America initiative started back in 2010.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden (left) announces the winners of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program development effort to build America’s next human spaceships launching from Florida to the International Space Station. Speaking from Kennedy’s Press Site, Bolden announced the contract award to Boeing and SpaceX to complete the design of the CST-100 and Crew Dragon spacecraft. Former astronaut Bob Cabana, center, director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Kathy Lueders, manager of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program, and former International Space Station Commander Mike Fincke also took part in the announcement. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden (left) announces the winners of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program development effort to build America’s next human spaceships launching from Florida to the International Space Station. Speaking from Kennedy’s Press Site, Bolden announced the contract award to Boeing and SpaceX to complete the design of the CST-100 and Crew Dragon spacecraft. Former astronaut Bob Cabana, center, director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Kathy Lueders, manager of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program, and former International Space Station Commander Mike Fincke also took part in the announcement. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, all NASA astronauts have been totally dependent on Russia and their Soyuz capsule as the sole source provider for seats to the ISS.

“The commercial crew vehicles are absolutely critical to our journey to Mars, absolutely critical. SpaceX and Boeing have set up operations here on the Space Coast, bringing jobs, energy and excitement about the future with them. They will increase crew safety and drive down costs.”

Meet Dragon V2 - SpaceX CEO Elon pulls the curtain off manned Dragon V2 on May 29, 2014 for worldwide unveiling of SpaceX's new astronaut transporter for NASA. Credit: SpaceX
Meet Dragon V2 – SpaceX CEO Elon pulls the curtain off manned Dragon V2 on May 29, 2014 for worldwide unveiling of SpaceX’s new astronaut transporter for NASA. Credit: SpaceX

CCP gets a hefty and needed increase from $805 Million in FY 2015 to $1.244 Billion in FY 2016.

To date the Congress has not fully funded the Administration’s CCP funding requests, since its inception in 2010.

The significant budget slashes amounting to 50% or more by Congress, have forced NASA to delay the first commercial crew flights of the private ‘space taxis’ from 2015 to 2017.

As a result, NASA has also been forced to continue paying the Russians for crew flights aboard the Soyuz that now cost over $70 million each under the latest contract signed with Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency.

Boeing CST-100 capsule interior up close.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Boeing CST-100 capsule interior up close. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Bolden has repeatedly stated that NASA’s overriding goal is to send astronauts to Mars in the 2030s.

To accomplish the ‘Journey to Mars’ NASA is developing the Orion deep space crew capsule and mammoth SLS rocket.

However, both programs had their budgets cut in the FY 2016 proposal compared to FY 2015. The 2015 combined total of $3.245 Billion is reduced in 2016 to $2.863 Billion, or over 10%.

The first test flight of an unmanned Orion atop the SLS is now slated for liftoff on Nov. 2018, following NASA’s announcement of a launch delay from the prior target of December 2017.

Since the Journey to Mars goal is already underfunded, significant cuts will hinder progress.

Orion just completed its nearly flawless maiden unmanned test flight in December 2014 on the Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission.

NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014.   Launch pad remote camera view.   Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014. Launch pad remote camera view. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

There are some losers in the new budget as well.

Rather incomprehensibly funding for the long lived Opportunity Mars Exploration Rover is zeroed out in 2016.

This comes despite the fact that the renowned robot just reached the summit of a Martian mountain at Cape Tribulation and is now less than 200 meters from a science goldmine of water altered minerals.

NASA’s Opportunity Mars rover captures sweeping panoramic vista near the ridgeline of 22 km (14 mi) wide Endeavour Crater's western rim. The center is southeastward and the distant rim is visible in the center. An outcrop area targeted for the rover to study is at right of ridge.  This navcam panorama was stitched from images taken on May 10, 2014 (Sol 3659) and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com
NASA’s Opportunity Mars rover captures sweeping panoramic vista near the ridgeline of 22 km (14 mi) wide Endeavour Crater’s western rim. The center is southeastward and the distant rim is visible in the center. An outcrop area targeted for the rover to study is at right of ridge. This navcam panorama was stitched from images taken on May 10, 2014 (Sol 3659) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com

Funding for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) is also zeroed out in FY 2016.

Both missions continue to function quite well with very valuable science returns. They were also zeroed out in FY 2015 but received continued funding after a senior level science review.

So their ultimate fate is unknown at this time.

Overall, Bolden was very upbeat about NASA’s future.

“I can unequivocally say that the state of NASA is strong,” Bolden said.

He concluded his remarks saying:

“Because of the dedication and determination of each and every one of you in our NASA Family, America’s space program is not just alive, it is thriving! Together with our commercial and international partners, academia and entrepreneurs, we’re launching the future. With the continued support of the Administration, the Congress and the American people, we’ll all get there together.”

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Targeting Icy Europa: NASA Seeks Ideas To Explore Potentially Habitable Moon

What lies beneath the cracked, thick ice on the surface of Europa? NASA is hoping to fly a mission to the Jupiter moon in the coming years to see if it is indeed a promising site for life. If this concept is approved in the budget, think of the mission as a recce: NASA will either orbit the moon, or do several flybys on it, to scout the surface for science and potential landing sites.

NASA just announced its desire to have science instruments proposed for the mission. Of the submitted list, 20 proposals will be selected in a year’s time, when selectees will have $25 million to do a more advanced concept study.

“The possibility of life on Europa is a motivating force for scientists and engineers around the world,” stated John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s science mission directorate. “This solicitation will select instruments which may provide a big leap in our search to answer the question: are we alone in the universe?”

The Europa mission is not a guarantee, and it’s unclear just how much money will be allocated to it in the long run. (NASA has requested $15 million in fiscal 2015 for the mission). The mission is also subject to budgetary approvals from Congress. If it passes all obstacles, it would fly sometime in the 2020s, according to information released with the budget earlier this year.

Reprocessed Galileo image of Europa's frozen surface by Ted Stryk (NASA/JPL/Ted Stryk)
Reprocessed Galileo image of Europa’s frozen surface by Ted Stryk (NASA/JPL/Ted Stryk)

In April, NASA sent out a request for information to interested potential participants on the mission itself, which it plans to cost less than $1 billion (excluding launch costs).

“Recent NASA studies have focused on an orbiter mission concept and a multiple flyby mission concept as the most compelling and feasible,” the agency stated.

Besides its desire to look for landing sites, NASA said the instruments should also be targeted to meet the National Resource Council’s (NRC) Planetary Decadal Survey’s desires for science on Europa. In NASA’s words, these are what those objectives are:

Rendering showing the location and size of water vapor plumes coming from Europa's south pole. Credit: NASA/ESA/L. Roth/SWRI/University of Cologne
Rendering showing the location and size of water vapor plumes coming from Europa’s south pole. Credit: NASA/ESA/L. Roth/SWRI/University of Cologne
  • 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.

Any instruments must meet NASA’s landing scout goal or the NRC goals, the agency said. The instruments also must be highly protected against the harsh radiation in the area, and also meet planetary protection requirements to ensure no extraterrestrial life is contaminated with our own.

Just yesterday (July 15), a NASA symposium on extraterrestrial life included a musing that the agency’s unflown next-generation rocket could send a Europa mission there in three years instead of the expected seven. That said, the Space Launch System is not tested in space and it is unclear what the budgetary environment for the rocket would be in the coming years.

You can view the entire solicitation on this page. Solicitations are due Oct. 17.

Source: NASA