NASA is going to Europa
Despite budget cuts that once threatened to make NASA irrelevant, the space agency has bounced back in a big way – and judging by its 2016 budget, the next few years are going to be some of the most important in the agency’s history.
The budget includes funding for several major projects that will grab headlines over the next few years, including one newly approved mission that could be among the most important in NASA’s history: A mission to Jupiter’s moon, Europa.
A return trip to the moon is an obvious step for NASA, and landing humans on Mars is the marquee event for the next few decades, but Europa is arguably more important than either. The moon is barren, and Mars is a mostly a dead planet, with the possible exception of bacteria. Europa, however, is something different.
Europa is slightly smaller than our own moon, but planetary scientists believe that its icy crust could be covering water oceans. If so, that could mean Europa is home to extraterrestrial life.
As part of the 2016 budget, NASA received approval for the “Europa Clipper” mission, the first step to landing a probe on the moon at some point in the future. The mission would send a spacecraft into orbit around Jupiter. It would then perform 45 flybys of Europa at altitudes ranging from 1700 miles to 16 miles.
The craft would be packed with instruments. Those instruments will likely include a radar that can penetrate ice, a spectrometer that can analyze the composition of Europa’s surface, topographic cameras, and tools to analyze the moon’s atmosphere.
The Clipper was first proposed in 2013, but it met with budgetary constraints. The spacecraft would ideally be the first of three missions to Europa. Following the Europa Clipper, the Europa Orbiter would then orbit the moon and map it for a possible landing, which would then be conducted by the third mission, the Europa Lander.
The lander would touch down on the icy surface, drill under the ice, and determine what Europa is really like. Our technology isn’t quite advanced enough for this probe, but it will be at some point in the near future.
Dependant on the results of the previous missions, that would ideally lead to crewed mission at some point, although that would likely be decades away.
The space agency considers a Europa mission to be one of its flagship projects, but it is not alone in wanting to know more about Europa.
The ESA is also preparing a mission to Jupiter’s moons, but its focus is on Ganymede more than Europa. The ESA’s mission is tentatively set for 2022, which would mean the craft would pass Europa in 2030. It would then continue on and reach Ganymede in 2032.
NASA hasn’t announced a timetable for the Europa Clipper yet, but it is hoping to launch before the ESA, thanks to a new rocket it is currently testing.
Along with the Europa Clipper, NASA will continue to develop its Orion capsule, a crewed spacecraft to replace the shuttle and offer NASA its own space capabilities. Until that spacecraft is ready, NASA will continue to channel funds into commercial development, which is expected to result in crewed launches by 2017.
NASA is also preparing the James Webb Space Telescope, the largest space observatory every launched, and the replacement for the aging Hubble Space Telescope. The budget will also include money for infrastructure upgrades and more.