On Tuesday, the White House released its 2015 NASA budget request, an estimated (the exact number has not been broken out yet) $15 million of which is allocated to develop a concept for a robotic mission to Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. This represents the first time Europa has been expressly mentioned in a White House budget. Under Europa’s thick outer crust of ice may lie a liquid ocean that is kept fluid by tidal forces. It is in this ocean that we may have our best bet for alien life within our solar system.
Though any specific plans for a Europa mission remain in preliminary stages, a leading concept seems to center on the Europa Clipper. The Europa Clipper space craft would actually orbit Jupiter, but would zip by Europa intermittently in the process. The Europa Clipper would be geared up with plenty of instruments to make detailed observations of Europa’s frozen surface as well as its sub-surface ocean.
NASA CFO Beth Robinson told reporters on Tuesday that “Europa is a very challenging mission operating in a really high radiation environment, and there’s lots to do to prepare for it … we’re looking for a launch some time in the mid-2020s.”
The video below has more info on Europa set to an unsettling synthesized harpsichord track.
On the south pole of Europa are geysers that spew water vapor spaceward. On one of its flybys, the Europa Clipper could potentially pass through one of these geysers, allowing it to sample the water without actually plopping down on the ice and busting out an auger.
All in all, it would probably cost 2 billion to actually get a Europa Clipper space-bound. This means that if this preliminary brainstorming session produces a plausible Europa mission concept, more funding would be necessary to get it off the ground, so to speak. Jim Green, head of NASA’s planetary science division, said the Europa Clipper “is what we would call a flagship, and right now the budget horizon is such that we’re deferring that kind of mission until later in the decade.”
If icy alien planets are up your alley, check out our coverage of Ceres, the chilly dwarf planet orbiting in the asteroid belt.