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NASA Wants to Explore Europa On the Cheap

Will science suffer with this arbitrary cost-cap?

Posted by Casey Dreier

05-03-2014 11:49 CST

Topics: FY2015 NASA Budget, Jupiter's moons, Europa, Europa Clipper

The decision to officially embrace Europa as a future destination for NASA's robotic space program was one of the highlights from yesterday's NASA 2015 Budget request. While NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden deflected questions about the scope of this mission during a budget press conference yesterday, that hesitation seems to have lifted during a symposium held by the American Astronautical Society. NASA wants to explore Europa for less than a billion dollars, a budget that is smaller than nearly all other missions to the outer planets.

Over the past few years, JPL and APL has been working on a reduced-cost Europa concept called the Europa Clipper, which would fly by Europa on the order of 50 times over a few years to map the surface and determine the properties of the assumed ocean and ice sheet. The Clipper had an estimated cost of $2.1 billion, less than half of the originally-conceived Europa Orbiter, which was around $4.7 billion. This would place the Clipper as a "flagship" mission, though on the low side for a flagship.

Why is a billion dollars for a mission "cheap"? Mainly because Europa is a particularly difficult destination to explore. The moon orbits within Jupiter's extreme radiation field, which degrades and disrupts electrical equipment on spacecraft. To mitigate the radiation, spacecraft need to carry heavy shielding. This extra shielding adds weight; and weight adds cost. So does a long cruise out to Jupiter, which usually takes around six years, unless this mission launches on the SLS, which can reduce that to less than three. Plutonium, which the spacecraft would likely require for electrical power, also costs a decent amount of money to procure and launch due to the numerous safety reviews and permits. So we're already facing a decent amount of cost just to keep a spacecraft functioning in the Jovian environment. Only one mission has ever been sent to Jupiter with this price tag, Juno, which orbits Jupiter's poles and therefore avoids most of the nasty radiation. A Europa mission won't have that luxury.

So where does this leave the science? I would be heartbroken to waste a to waste a once-in-a-generation opportunity to explore Europa by skimping on the science. There is so much to learn about this moon and its potential for habitability, that I feel it deserves a big investment if we want to see big returns.

I'm looking to seeing the responses to this RFI (Request for Information). Scientists and engineers are endlessly creative, and if we can find a way do the same science as outlined in the Decadal Survey *and* save some money, all the better.

But we need to do Europa right. This is about the science, and the science should drive the mission.

Europa peeks from behind Jupiter

NASA / JPL / Daniel Macháček

Europa peeks from behind Jupiter
On July 3, 1979, as Voyager 2 approached Jupiter, it caught Europa coyly ducking behind Jupiter's dark limb.
See other posts from March 2014


Or read more blog entries about: FY2015 NASA Budget, Jupiter's moons, Europa, Europa Clipper


JeffJ: 03/05/2014 12:11 CST

Both APL and JPL have been working on this mission.

Casey Dreier: 03/05/2014 12:16 CST

@JeffJ: Of course! Thanks for the correction. I've updated the post.

JeffJ: 03/05/2014 01:53 CST

Thanks for the correction!

Supernaut: 03/05/2014 02:57 CST

Well, for those skeptical about the SLS, here's a great target for it (Europa)!

JayJ: 03/05/2014 06:41 CST

Actually, it's not that hard to fathom how this is possible. You simply duplicate JUNO with additional/modified equipment, a different trajectory, and simply let the equipment fail from radiation exposure. Remember, JUNO is not using RTGs. It's 100% solar due to increased efficiencies found in the last few years.

Enzo: 03/05/2014 07:13 CST

@supernaut : If I remember well, they said exactly the same regarding the shuttle "Once we have the shuttle launching probes will be so efficient/cheap....NOT" @Jay Galileo often went in safe mode when it got too close to the radiation zone. Many Europa and Io flybys were lost because of this. I don't know how Galileo compares to Juno as far as radiation resilience goes. I suspect that Galileo was more resilient as it was designed for a tour of the moons, not just sneaking between radiation belts, but I could be wrong. So you'd spend $1B and then, at each close flyby, the probe would fail. It was very frustrating with Galileo : days and days working fine until the crucial one :-(

Paul McCarthy: 03/05/2014 10:22 CST

Very, very dubious route -- agree with all that Casey says. .....unless, also as Casey says, the thing gets launched by the SLS. Then, all of a sudden, maybe it's completely "a silk purse from a sow's ear"! The $1Bn limit is cost of spacecraft EXCLUDING launch, correct? An SLS-launched 2 year cruise time would leave much more of the $1Bn free, so that this was STILL a HIGHLY worthwhile and exciting mission. This would be doubly so because results would be available >4 years earlier! And if there's one thing that would be really, really fantastic, it would be to get results from Europa absolutely ASAP. Let's face it, we hardly know for sure what we're dealing with there. In the hoped-for (probable) scenarios, the results will be SO encouraging/interesting/exciting that there will be little difficulty extracting further $ for RAPID follow-up missions! The SLS is going to need several unmanned flights. What better, more productive, more high-net-yield use could there be than what would effectively be hugely multiplying the effective yield from the Europa mission? What better (pre-manned) justification for, and validation of, the SLS could there be??? So: A sow's ear! Unless it is launched by SLS; then it's massively a silk purse!!! Even the reduced development and testing times of a cheaper mission could well be a godsend in that scenarion!! Seems to me the Society and ALL interested parties, should get behind the mission concept, if that's what NASA's determined to do anyway, BUT PUT EVERY OUNCE OF MUSCLE INTO GETTING IT ONTO THE SLS, something not yet EXCLUDED in what NASA's had to say!!! HUGE, HUGE bangs for the lobbying buck there!!!

Paul McCarthy: 03/05/2014 10:35 CST

The reduced development and testing times of a cheaper mission might allow launch a couple of years earlier. So, overall, on an SLS launch, it could yield results 6 YEARS earlier -- that's a HUGE, HUGE gain when the target is SO promising. If results are as exciting everyone expects, further missions will easily follow. If not, well a bit of relaxation, and probably other targets like Enceladus etc, are probably in order anyway! This fits VERY well with "Faster, Better, Cheaper". Well, maybe SLS isn't cheaper, but it's being built anyway, and testing and uses must be found!

Kim Craig: 03/06/2014 02:02 CST

The question I have for Bolden, Grunsfeld and Green is "what on the Europa Clipper do you want to leave off"? By comparing the other two outer planets New Frontiers missions, New Horizons and Juno, it appears evident to me that it will be a lot. By mission end many questions will remain due to data not collected. Since Europa Clipper is already down scoped from an earlier proposal, why not get behind it despite the higher cost. It will prevent the need to fly a follow on mission to collect the data not collected the first time.

Arbitrary: 03/07/2014 05:07 CST

Sounds like a budget for a flyby mission. And I'd rather see a flyby mission being launched in a few years, passing near Europa two years later, having no need for radiation shielding because of the short exposure time, trying to pass through a plume, than a low budget orbiter arriving in the 2030's. ESA is doing that anyway.

Kevin: 06/29/2014 03:18 CDT

Please cease this frivolous nonsense. I'd much prefer to spend our hard earned tax dollars on Mideast wars, oil subsidies, defense for enemies that don't exist, agricultural subsidies, social programs to help enslave the lower classes, and prisons.

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