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Here Are the Science Instruments NASA Will Use to Explore Europa

Posted by Casey Dreier

26-05-2015 13:01 CDT

Topics: Jupiter's moons, Europa, Space Policy, mission status, Europa Clipper

NASA's mission to Europa became a bit more real today.

In a televised press conference, the space agency announced the suite of scientific instruments that will ride along on the spacecraft to explore this enigmatic ocean moon. The instruments were selected competitively through an open proposal process. NASA intends to spend $110 million on instrument development over the next three years.

With today's announcement, the Europa mission now has an official science team.

From the press release, here are the instruments NASA selected today:

Plasma Instrument for Magnetic Sounding (PIMS) -- principal investigator Dr. Joseph Westlake of Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), Laurel, Maryland. This instrument works in conjunction with a magnetometer and is key to determining Europa's ice shell thickness, ocean depth, and salinity by correcting the magnetic induction signal for plasma currents around Europa.

Interior Characterization of Europa using Magnetometry (ICEMAG) -- principal investigator Dr. Carol Raymond of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, California. This magnetometer will measure the magnetic field near Europa and – in conjunction with the PIMS instrument – infer the location, thickness and salinity of Europa’s subsurface ocean using multi-frequency electromagnetic sounding.

Mapping Imaging Spectrometer for Europa (MISE) -- principal investigator Dr. Diana Blaney of JPL. This instrument will probe the composition of Europa, identifying and mapping the distributions of organics, salts, acid hydrates, water ice phases, and other materials to determine the habitability of Europa’s ocean.

Europa Imaging System (EIS) -- principal investigator Dr. Elizabeth Turtle of APL. The wide and narrow angle cameras on this instrument will map most of Europa at 50 meter (164 foot) resolution, and will provide images of areas of Europa’s surface at up to 100 times higher resolution.

Radar for Europa Assessment and Sounding: Ocean to Near-surface (REASON) -- principal investigator Dr. Donald Blankenship of the University of Texas, Austin. This dual- frequency ice penetrating radar instrument is designed to characterize and sound Europa's icy crust from the near-surface to the ocean, revealing the hidden structure of Europa’s ice shell and potential water within.

Europa Thermal Emission Imaging System (E-THEMIS) -- principal investigator Dr. Philip Christensen of Arizona State University, Tempe. This “heat detector” will provide high spatial resolution, multi-spectral thermal imaging of Europa to help detect active sites, such as potential vents erupting plumes of water into space.

MAss SPectrometer for Planetary EXploration/Europa (MASPEX) -- principal investigator Dr. Jack (Hunter) Waite of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), San Antonio. This instrument will determine the composition of the surface and subsurface ocean by measuring Europa’s extremely tenuous atmosphere and any surface material ejected into space.

Ultraviolet Spectrograph/Europa (UVS) -- principal investigator Dr. Kurt Retherford of SwRI. This instrument will adopt the same technique used by the Hubble Space Telescope to detect the likely presence of water plumes erupting from Europa’s surface. UVS will be able to detect small plumes and will provide valuable data about the composition and dynamics of the moon’s rarefied atmosphere.

SUrface Dust Mass Analyzer (SUDA) -- principal investigator Dr. Sascha Kempf of the University of Colorado, Boulder. This instrument will measure the composition of small, solid particles ejected from Europa, providing the opportunity to directly sample the surface and potential plumes on low-altitude flybys.

You can think of the instrument selection as the beginning of a marathon. After years of preparation, the selected teams now begin the arduous journey of designing and building the instruments. It's no easy task to take scientific measurements in the harsh radiation environment around Jupiter. The various teams will now spend the next several years designing, building, and testing their instruments. And that's just to get them ready to bolt on to the spacecraft. By the time the mission is ready to launch (currently planned for the mid-2020s), it will take anywhere from three to eight years to arrive at Jupiter. This means that the teams selected today won't see data from their instruments for at least ten years, maybe more.

See other posts from May 2015


Or read more blog entries about: Jupiter's moons, Europa, Space Policy, mission status, Europa Clipper


Stephen: 05/26/2015 10:27 CDT

It's good to see something concrete actually happening to get a Europa mission off the ground. Hopefully we will not have to wait too many decades for that mission to arrive and start doing useful work.

Paul McCarthy: 05/26/2015 11:30 CDT

"...won't see data from their instruments for at least ten years", and at least three years to get there. That seems to mean the mission could launch as early as 2022? Is that correct? And "three years" is presumably on the SLS? Obviously everyone should campaign like mad for those two outcomes! We then stand to see the most amazing things in our own lifetimes. A later launch and a slower transit could make it ten years later.

Casey Dreier (The Planetary Society): 05/27/2015 12:00 CDT

Paul: Yes, you're correct. The 2016 appropriations bill in the House of Representatives explicitly calls for a 2022 launch on an SLS (they're eager to get there, too!). It remains to see if that will make it into law, though. The Senate is generally less committed to Europa, and NASA itself wants a slower pace. 2022 would be pretty aggressive, and it would be tricky to pay for a Europa mission, Mars 2020, *and* maintain balance in the rest of the program. That all changes if the money shows up, however.

Navin: 05/27/2015 09:27 CDT

Shame they're not doing a lander, but for $30 million, I can see why their opting to trade time for better data, before anything more ambitious. Is there perhaps concern against backlash if they did an expensive lander mission and drew a blank on life? Glad to have you lobbying for us, Sir.

stone: 05/28/2015 02:40 CDT

There is a chance that NASA is piggybacking a probe if money is found.

Torbjörn Larsson: 06/01/2015 05:56 CDT

A lander would have two problems: - It would deviate from NASA's "proven" flyby-orbit-land-rover/drill-sample return strategical pathway. - It would have tactical problem too: no landing sites are scouted. They could have dedicated orbiter/multiple flyby secondary crafts for scouting, while the lander would wait a few years (realistically) in the outer system before the scientists have finished doing the preliminary orbiter science and decided on a "best" landing site. But that is almost as slow as doing it staged as per the strategical plan.

Torbjörn Larsson: 06/01/2015 05:58 CDT

I forgot: Jupiter's radiation is why the lander has to orbit at distance (and part of the reason why the current mission has multiple flybys instead of an orbit mission).

Torbjörn Larsson: 06/01/2015 06:10 CDT

Ah, now I saw, and read, the piggyback proposal. (My previous comment was a response to Navin, on a lander with multiple flyby piggybacks.) That would work!

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