Balancing cost and science: NASA examines less expensive mission design for Europa lander

Artist’s conception of the Europa lander. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The push for a return mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa has been gaining steam in the last few years, with NASA now planning for Europa Clipper, which would make repeated close flybys to study the moon’s interior ocean and the exciting potential for life. There has also been more talk about a possible lander to examine the moon’s surface up close. Such a mission would be expensive of course, but NASA is now studying possible ways to lessen the costs while maintaining good science return.

On Sept. 6, 2017, Curt Niebur, a program scientist in the planetary science division at NASA Headquarters, told a meeting of the Outer Planets Assessment Group (OPAG) that NASA is examining the mission design, taking into account both mission costs and the potential science return.

“As a result of that mission concept review, what we want to do is essentially continue exploring the different options we have for a Europa lander mission,” said Niebur. “We want to continue balancing the trade amongst risk, cost and science return.”

Some earlier ideas had proposed a combined clipper/lander, but the costs would be prohibitive and also require as-yet unused technology. The thinking now is to have a lander as a separate mission, following Europa Clipper. Earlier this year, the updated proposal calls for the lander to be launched on a Space Launch System (SLS) rocket no earlier than late 2025, which would arrive at Jupiter in mid-2030 and land on Europa in late 2031. Five instruments would be used to analyze material on the surface and the battery-powered probe would be able to operate for about 20 days. A possible downside is that lower costs would mean less science being done.

Illustration of Europa’s possible water vapor plumes. Image Credit: NASA/ESA/W. Sparks (STScI)/USGS Astrogeology Science Center/Z. Levay (STScI)
Close-up view of Europa’s icy, cracked surface as seen by the Galileo spacecraft in 1996. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
Below Europa’s cold, icy surface lies a deep, salty liquid water ocean which could be home to some form of life. Image Credit: Britney Schmidt/Dead Pixel VFX/Univ. of Texas at Austin

“I firmly believe that you can’t make substantial cost reductions and maintain the full science return of this mission,” he said. “If you really want to see a more streamlined mission concept, you’re going to have to be willing to give up some science. So, yes, science is on the table.”

As of right now, no firm decisions have been made and NASA has not yet released an Announcement of Opportunity (AO) for instruments to be included.

“Until we finish that exploration, it’s premature to release an AO,” Niebur said.

Meanwhile, progress is being made on Europa Clipper and it has now entered a preliminary design phase, including science instruments, bringing it much closer to being a reality than the lander so far.

Before the lander mission, NASA is planning the Europa Clipper, which would make repeated close flybys of the moon in the 2020s. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“This is supremely great news,” said Niebur in a Feb. 22 presentation at another meeting of the Outer Planets Assessment Group (OPAG) in Atlanta.

Current plans are for Europa Clipper to launch “in the early 2020s” although recent appropriations bill funding has directed NASA to launch the mission by 2022.

With the recent ending of the incredible Cassini mission at Saturn, a return to Europa, last seen up close by the Galileo probe in the early 2000s, would be exciting indeed. Apart from Juno currently at Jupiter, but only studying the planet itself, there are currently no other outer Solar System planetary missions being designed yet, although tentative ideas are in the works for a return to Enceladus and Titan as well, as part of the Ocean Worlds program. After Cassini, there will still be a long gap in exploration of this region of the Solar System however. Hopefully both the Europa Clipper and lander missions will be able to help fill that gap.

This article was first published on AmericaSpace.





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