It’s been a long time coming, but NASA’s new mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa now has a formal name: Europa Clipper. The spacecraft, to be launched in the early 2020s, will conduct multiple close flybys of the moon, with the goal of determining just how habitable it actually is. With a global salty ocean just beneath its icy crust, Europa is thought to be one of the best places in the Solar System to search for possible alien life.
For decades now, Europa has beckoned – this moon of Jupiter which is frozen on the outside but hides a global ocean on the inside – has so far only been visited by spacecraft during brief flybys. Scientists and the public alike have been wanting to return to this fascinating little world since it offers the possibility of maybe, just maybe, being home to some kind of life. Plans have been inching forward for a new mission to conduct multiple, closer flybys of Europa, to learn more about the ocean just below the ice, but what about actually landing? A lander would be a more difficult prospect since Europa doesn’t have an atmosphere, but is certainly doable. Now, NASA has received a formal science report on how best to conduct such a mission. This is a significant step toward finally being able have the view of looking up at Jupiter hanging in the inky black Europan sky – a dream of many for a long time.
Intriguing new findings about Jupiter’s moon Europa were announced today by NASA, and while they don’t involve any direct evidence for life, they do provide more information on how scientists could better search for such evidence, without having to drill through the icy crust to the ocean below. The new observations, by the Hubble Space Telescope, have added to the evidence for active water vapour plumes on Europa – an exciting possibility, since they would possibly originate from the subsurface ocean, similar to the plumes on Saturn’s moon Enceladus. And just like the Cassini spacecraft has already done at Enceladus, those plumes – geysers really – could be sampled directly by a future spacecraft such as Europa Clipper.
For a long time now, there has been growing interest in sending a mission back to Jupiter to better study one moon in particular: Europa. Previous missions such as Voyager and Galileo showed us this world up close for the first time, revealing a place that maybe, just maybe, is home to some kind of life. On the outside, Europa is cold and frozen, like an airless version of Antarctica, with its surface completely composed of ice. But deeper down, as those probes found, there is a global ocean of water deeper than any oceans on Earth. In more recent years and months, a new NASA mission to Europa has finally started to take shape, with a launch tentatively scheduled for 2022. As often happens, however, the mission is facing possible budget cuts in 2017.
Sending human astronauts to Mars is a dream shared by many, but there are still challenges to overcome and the question of just how to accomplish it is a subject of intense debate. Some supporters advocate sending a mission directly to Mars, while others think that returning to the Moon first, for potentially beneficial training, is the way to go. Indeed, former astronaut James Lovell, who flew on two trips to the Moon, has also called for a return to the Moon first. NASA itself has stated its desire to send a crewed mission to a nearby asteroid first, instead of the Moon, going a bit farther into space than the Moon as its idea of preparation for the much longer journey to Mars. A major problem has been that NASA has still not set a firm timetable for such a mission; it wants to go to Mars, but the steps to achieving that goal are still unclear.
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.
This was an exciting and very important week for NASA and planetary exploration: the new NASA budget from Congress is better than expected and, in the words of The Planetary Society, “extraordinary.” There is a healthy increase for planetary science, and one new mission in particular which a lot of people have been waiting for: a new mission to Europa. Not only is it now fully funded, the Congressional plan goes further than the initial mission concept in calling for not just multiple flybys, but also a lander.