The recently announced new mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, a highly anticipated return to this ocean world, may face a launch delay from 2022 to the late 2020s. The news comes amid the release yesterday of NASA’s fiscal year 2017 budget request, which provides substantially less funding than Congress had mandated last year.
The mission, which will include multiple flybys of Europa and possibly a lander, was granted $175 million by Congress last year, and NASA was directed to have the mission ready to launch by 2022. The new budget request from the Obama administration, however, includes only $49.6 million, much less than what Congress wants. According to NASA chief financial officer David Radzanowski, this “supports a Europa mission launch in the late 2020s.” Radzanowski made the remarks during a news conference yesterday, Feb. 9. About $1.5 billion, out of $19 billion for the total NASA budget, is earmarked for Planetary Science. As stated in the NASA fiscal year 2017 budget request:
“$1,519 million for Planetary Science, keeping on track the Mars 2020 rover and the next selection for the New Frontiers program and including formulation of a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa.”
So why didn’t NASA request more funding? As Radzanowski noted, “Within our $19 billion request, to find an additional $150 million – whether within the science portfolio or abroad – we felt would upset the balance of the overall portfolio.” The $19 billion is the total NASA budget request for all missions and programs.
In order to have the mission ready to launch by 2022, a total investment of $194 million would be required for 2017, according to Radzanowski; he mentioned that this estimate has already been given to Congress.
The $19 billion for fiscal year 2017 also represents a decrease of $260 million from the 2016 budget. This would include shifting some funds from the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion programs to aeronautics and space technology. SLS would receive $1.31 billion, a decrease of nearly $700 million, and Orion would receive $1.12 billion, about $150 million less than in 2016.
Also in this budget request, $5.6 billion is allocated for Science, $8.4 billion for Human Exploration Operations, $827 million for Space Technology, $790 million for Aeronautics Research, $100 million for Education, and $3.3 billion for Safety, Security and Mission Services and Construction & Environmental Compliance and Restoration.
None of this is written in stone yet. The request will face significant opposition in Congress. As Radzanowski explained: “I understand that it’s not necessarily at the profile in some areas that Congress asked. This is the administration’s proposal as to how to provide a balanced NASA budget, both for exploration and across other areas.”
The spending proposals are a concern not just regarding Europa, but also other future planetary and human missions.
“We are deeply concerned about the Administration’s proposed cut to NASA’s human exploration development programs,” Mary Lynne Dittmar, executive director of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, told SpaceNews. “This proposed budget falls well short of the investment needed to support NASA’s exploration missions.”
As Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Science Committee, also noted in a Feb. 9 statement: “This administration cannot continue to tout plans to send astronauts to Mars while strangling the programs that will take us there. This imbalanced proposal continues to tie our astronauts’ feet to the ground and makes a Mars mission all but impossible.”
The Europa mission is still in the early development stages, so talk of a definite delay is premature at this point. As has happened before, NASA may receive more money from Congress than it actually requests. NASA had made no requests for a Europa mission in 2013/2014, but Congress allocated $120 million anyway. In 2015/2016, NASA had requested $45 million, but received $275 million instead. Hopefully that trend will continue, because the Europa mission will be both ambitious and expensive. As of now, a flyby mission only (with 45 flybys of Europa) is estimated to cost $2.1 billion. Any budget cuts to the mission would push it into a launch later in the 2020s, something both supporters of the mission in the scientific community and Congress do not want.
This also leaves open the question as to whether the mission will include a lander. As stated in the budget legislation last year, “This mission shall include an orbiter with a lander that will include competitively selected instruments and that funds shall be used to finalize the mission design concept.”
Congress wants a lander included in the mission, and, of course, that would be an exciting development. That will be determined, however, by the how the budgetary process plays out.
As noted by Texas Congressman John Culberson, who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee (with jurisdiction over NASA):
“This number, this year, is the largest vote of confidence that Congress has ever given NASA. There’s enough money to do everything on their plate. Until now Europa has had no advocate. NASA headquarters was prepared to let the Europa mission die. But I have always believed there is life on other worlds, and I have wanted to have a hand in helping to discover life on other worlds.” He later added, “I told them to do whatever it takes. All of humanity is going to want to know what’s under the ice.”
That, in a nutshell, is the impetus behind a mission back to Europa: to search for evidence of possible life in its subsurface ocean. In fact, Europa has more water in its ocean than all of Earth’s oceans and seas combined. Having a global ocean beneath its outer ice shell makes Europa an exciting target for astrobiologists. Evidence from previous missions and Earth-based telescopes suggests the ocean is salty and very similar chemically to Earth’s oceans. On Earth, even where covered by ice at the poles, the oceans are teeming with life. Could the same be true for Europa? The ocean floor of Europa is also thought to be in contact with the rocky core, like on Earth, which could provide needed mineral nutrients, and there is some evidence for hydrothermal activity. Even in the deepest parts of Earth’s oceans, such hydrothermal vents become oases for vibrant ecosystems. The lack of sunlight has not prevented that, so it is possible that some forms of life could also exist in the darkness of Europa’s ocean.
There is also now evidence that salts or other substances from deep below can make their way to the surface, leaving behind deposits which can be analyzed. These are found predominately in regions known as “chaos terrain” where the surface is highly fractured and jumbled. According to astronomer Mike Brown: “We think we might be looking at salts left over after a large amount of ocean water flowed out onto the surface and then evaporated away. They may be like the large salt flats in the desert regions of the world, in which the chemical composition of the salt reflects whatever materials were dissolved in the water before it evaporated.”
It was also previously reported that there may be water vapour “geysers” on Europa, similar to the ones discovered on Saturn’s moon Enceladus, which also has a subsurface global ocean. If so, they could also be sampled, the same way the Cassini spacecraft has already done several times at Enceladus. They haven’t been confirmed yet, however, and are likely smaller and fainter than those on Enceladus.
“When we had Galileo at Jupiter we didn’t look for plumes because we didn’t know they were there,” said Jim Green, who oversees NASA’s Planetary Sciences division. “They were probably all over the place, and we probably missed opportunities all over the place. We were just too ignorant to recognize the opportunities.”
There may even be active plate tectonics on Europa, another geological phenomenon which helped life on Earth to prosper and evolve.
The new Europa mission will make 45 close flybys of Europa to study its surface and interior in unprecedented detail, including taking many high-resolution images and probing the subsurface with ice-penetrating radar. A magnetometer would also study the moon’s magnetic field which would allow scientists to determine the depth and salinity of its ocean. The mission is part of NASA’s new “Ocean Worlds Exploration Program” which also includes Enceladus and Titan. Titan has rivers, lakes, and seas of liquid methane/ethane on its surface and a probable liquid water ocean below, similar to Europa and Enceladus.
Additional information about the fiscal year 2017 budget request is available here.
This article was first published on AmericaSpace.