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Why We Don't Know When the Europa Mission Will Launch

Posted by Casey Dreier

27-05-2015 13:32 CDT

Topics: Jupiter's moons, Europa, FY2016 NASA Budget, Europa Clipper

During the recent press conference announcing the scientific instrument package on the upcoming Europa mission, NASA's Planetary Science Division Director Jim Green was asked when the mission would be ready to launch.

"We expect it to be launched in the 2020s...whether it's mid, or a little early or a little later, needs to be worked out based on a much firmer cost estimate and a profile that would support it," said Green.

If this answer seems heavily hedged, it is. The reason is not orbital mechanics. It's that the Europa mission is currently caught up in a fight over funding priorities between the White House and Congress: powerful members of Congress want the mission to happen sooner; the White House would rather support other programs within NASA.

Announcing the Europa Science Instruments

NASA / Aubrey Gemignani

Announcing the Europa Science Instruments
NASA announces the instruments selected to investigate Jupiter's moon Europa. From left to right: John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate; Jim Green, Planetary Science Division Director; Curt Niebur, Europa program scientist at NASA Headquarters.

After years of false starts, canceled missions, and preliminary studies, the White House agreed to start a new mission to Europa in this year's budget request for NASA. However, it proposed to spend a relatively small amount of money over the next five years to begin formulating the mission, starting with $30 million in 2016. This funding level is too little to support a launch in the early 2020s, and perhaps even the mid-2020s.

The House of Representatives, meanwhile, has aggressively supported a major mission to Europa, supplying hundreds of millions of dollars over the past few years despite the lack of official NASA requests for this funding. Just a few weeks ago, the House proposed a NASA spending bill for 2016 that would provide the Europa mission with $140 million—$110 million over the requested amount—and dictates NASA to plan to launch the mission in 2022 on the Space Launch System heavy rocket now under development.

The language in the House bill is not yet law, and Jim Green, as an employee of NASA, must represent the Administration's position on Europa as stated in the budget. This is why a launch date is currently hard to pin down: it very much depends on how much money is ultimately provided to the mission, how consistently, and whether the Administration itself ultimately decides to request significant increases in funding over the next few years.

The reasons for this come down to funding priorities within NASA. The White House generally favors Commercial Crew, Space Technology, Earth Science, and the James Webb Space Telescope. Planetary Science has not been high on their list since the large cuts to the program they first proposed in 2012. Even as recently as 2014, the President's Budget Request for NASA made unusually explicit statements that "NASA is not able to support development of an Outer Planets Flagship mission in the foreseeable future." Fortunately, that attitude has changed, but years have been lost to get this mission off the ground (so to speak).

Getting a Europa mission to launch by 2022 is aggressive, but doable. The trick is providing the funding in a way that maintains balance within the Planetary Science Division (the Mars 2020 rover, for example, is another large mission set to launch within a similar time frame), as well as NASA's larger science portfolio. Once the Administration and Congress agree on this priority, we'll have a clearer idea of a launch date.

Of course, the bigger issue here is that NASA is tasked with doing too much with too little funding. Congress has actually done a very good job funding NASA the past few years given the overall spending limits imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act. But until its budget can grow to accommodate its mission, issues like the Europa launch date will persist.

See other posts from May 2015


Or read more blog entries about: Jupiter's moons, Europa, FY2016 NASA Budget, Europa Clipper


Messy: 05/28/2015 11:22 CDT

Usually, I side with the Administration against Congress, but not this time. Now that we've gone to all the planets, finding life should be our top priority. Europa and Mars are the only places we can do that, and we should get a move on as soon as possible. With the Orion program being mostly a waste of money, it's the most important mission going. Get'er done.

Bender: 05/28/2015 01:36 CDT

Science delayed is science denied. This mission is not going to prove that life exists on Europa, it's only another step towards that goal. It will have to be followed by landers and ultimately by submarines that penetrate the ice and reach the interior ocean. This is not going to happen within our lifetime if each step takes 10 years of lobbying, 10 years of development and then 6 (rather than 2) years of travel time because we're too cheap to fund the rocket for a direct trip and need to go via Venus/Earth/Earth gravity assists. At this slow pace, the ultimate goal of proving that life exists on Europa and observing it by a submarine would happen in the 2080s. That kind of schedule is an insult to the public and the taxpayers. We might as well not do it at all. I'm not trying to be negative here at all, merely making the case that the Society's lobbying must not stop with getting approval of the mission. It must continue, and now press for timely execution, which means launch in 2022 on a direct trajectory using the SLS.

Paul McCarthy: 05/29/2015 02:08 CDT

Agree entirely with Bender (although a sub won't be necessary to detect traces of life) -- the "lifetime" issue is now the critical one. It's unfair to current US taxpayers. Don't all those mature gents in Congress and the White House wanna know the answer to this too? Actually, I bet it would be a very rare one that doesn't if asked the question directly. But probably many have never thought of it in terms of their own chance to find out before they "shuffle off this mortal coil". So I think that should always be the main angle that all these potentates are lobbied from! Self interest!!! And although I say a sub won't be needed to tell if life is there, I fully agree that the moment we knew the answer was "Yes", the desire to actually see it would be intense.

Torbjörn Larsson: 05/30/2015 04:57 CDT

While I agree that we eventually need to explore the ice moons, for the reason Jim Green more or less stated, to know the total frequency of life in the universe, "Mars first" is a robust decision that the US astro community made way back. It has faster turnaround on science, it informs more on planets such as our own, and currently it is the best bet for extant life. [Considering observed habitability, and - already - putative fossil finds.] But as for the time horizon, it is what it is. It took roughly a century between people started to describe the universe as a system [FRW cosmology] until its theory was finalized [LCDM cosmology]. It took roughly a century between people started to describe its particle content as a system [QFT] until its theory was finalized [Standard Model]. In both cases it took 30-40 years from the glimmer of a "final" theory until the huge, costly and multi-staffed observatories could clinch the deal. And now we have started to see emergence of life as a process. A decade ago you could read astrobiologists say we have spent 50 years on establishing likely pathways, and it could take 50 years to test which one(s) are viable. Finding life on Mars 2060 or in Europa 2080 seems like a normal timeframe as these things goes, we have a glimmer of a "final" test and huge, costly and multi-staffed "observatories" are needed. If the public doesn't understand the pace of science, there is an educational problem. [Which Planetary Society is uniquely poised to solve, by the way.] Possibly the wrong thing to do is to push for Europa, unless scientists like Porco are confident that it is right. A more solid analysis than personal dissatisfaction should be valuable. That said, I doubt there is a scientific problem with the current pace. It looks like ordinary science (tackling extraordinary questions, which it has done successfully before).

Torbjörn Larsson: 05/30/2015 05:10 CDT

I note that with the stated strategy, NASA's conservative but proven "flyby, orbiter, lander, rover/drill, sample return" approach, the more likely first observation of life elsewhere is with the biosignatures of observatories. If we are lucky, a telescope can find a set of biosignatures among a set of candidates sometime after the TESS survey - 10-20 years as has been commonly stated - or else we need one or two generations of space (and ground telescopes) which will push the putative observation into Mars/Europa sample return timeframes.

Bender: 05/30/2015 04:29 CDT

I don't have an issue with the incremental exploration approach, merely with the artificial delays necessitated by starving planetary exploration of necessary funding. Imagine that NASA's planetary exploration budget was permanently increased from currently less than $1.5 billion/year to $3 billion per year. This would mean the ability to prepare and launch a new flagship class mission every 2 years. I don't have to explain to readers of this site that this would be completely transformational. We would still stick with the proven sequence of of orbit, land, rove and return samples, but now we could execute it in parallel and give all the planets and major moons the same attention we've been giving to Mars. In the next 20 years, we would see more progress than in the entire previous history of the space program. Of course, a lot of fantastic things would be possible if we just had unlimited money, but I'm not making that kind of argument. An extra $1.7 billion per year is almost a rounding error in the federal budget. You could cut it from the military budget and no one would even know it's gone. This brings me to my main point. In public interest political lobbying, you have to ask for the whole loaf to get half a loaf - or even a quarter. The Society has been lobbying to get planetary exploration up to $1.5 billion per year. That's far too modest. "Compromising with yourself" is an ineffective approach to lobbying. If planetary exploration really offers such a fantastic value, if it really pays for itself many times over in innovation, jobs and spinoffs here on Earth and in benefits to education, why wouldn't we want to spend much more on it? We would be stupid not to invest much, much more into it. That's the case the Society should be making.

Paul McCarthy: 05/31/2015 12:01 CDT

Agree with Bender again -- make suitably ambitious requests. And I say the way to get these (mainly) mature ladies and gents to hand over the money is to say something (roughly) like: "In amongst all the trivia, dross and waste of modern life, all the money spent on videos and lethally excessive overeating, etc, here is something truly worthwhile, truly inspiring, truly informative, etc. You are only in this position of power for a few years (mainly), and you have the power to make these momentous things happen. Even from your own purely personal point of view, wouldn't knowing the answers to these questions (about life) be something you'd think tremendously worthwhile to see within your own (brief) period of mortality???" Self interest!!

Enzo: 05/31/2015 07:49 CDT

@Torbjörn Larsson, Your monochromatic vision of the planetary exploration program is the opposite of science. Science (amongst other things) is the simultaneous study of multiple fields in the hope of better understanding their synergies. Physicists did not just study electrostatic forces only. If they had done so they would have missed out on how electric and magnetic forces are related (and much more). Astronomers did not study G stars only because " It has faster turnaround on science, it informs more on stars such as our own" (to paraphrase your comment). If they had done so they would have missed out on understanding the concept of stellar evolution and how different stars relate to each other. Biologists did not just focus studies on humans only "because they are convenient to study". Had they done so they would have missed on the complexity of life as a whole. Finally, planetologists should not focus on a single planet (Mars) only just because " It has faster turnaround on science, it informs more on planets such as our own". Doing so, as the examples I have made show, would certainly miss out on interconnected information we can't even imagine until we actually find out. "If the public doesn't understand the pace of science, there is an educational problem." It sounds to me that its you, not the public that has a problem with understanding the scientific process and its pace.

Torbjörn Larsson: 05/31/2015 01:44 CDT

@Paul McCarthy: Such an expanded "self interest" could most people stand behind. It is when we have to set priorities the arguments starts. =D @Enzo: "Your monochromatic vision of the planetary exploration program is the opposite of science. Science (amongst other things) is the simultaneous study of multiple fields in the hope of better understanding their synergies." Of course it is. When did I say differently? I was discussing, as was the article, on a background of economical constraint. "But until its budget can grow to accommodate its mission". Here, Enzo: 'Your monochromatic vision of the planetary exploration program is the opposite of science. Science (amongst other things) is the prioritized study of fields in the hope of making best progress.' Now that was an illustration. Your personal attacks on the other hand don't put you in the best of lights, or in an objective position to speak about science.

Enzo: 06/01/2015 01:17 CDT

"Your personal attacks on the other hand don't put you in the best of lights, or in an objective position to speak about science." You are right, apologies. "But until its budget can grow to accommodate its mission" You make it sound like the budget is the only problem. My point is that sure it is , but a bigger problem is how is spent. Currently we have : 1) 4 orbiters around Mars (one from ESA) and 2 rovers working on the surface. 2) one more lander and a rover are planned/being executed. 3) the cost of the above (without ESA's orbiter) is over $6B. 4) For Europa we only have cancellations and a tentative mission now that could be cancelled any time. No real plans for Titan, Enceladus, Uranus/Neptune. 5) After 2017 no mission even on its way to the outer planets. Maybe on the drawing board ? To me it doesn't matter how it was decided : it's a black box : I see a lot of money and mostly Mars missions. It is not just a budget constraint, it's how it is divided. If you write about how well balanced all this is, you are clearly happy about the situation. If a fossil has been found on Mars, that, if confirmed, makes its priority higher and justify a sample return mission. However, all the expenditure above was approved before this discovery and, in any case, Mars priority is already so high that any higher might simply mean stopping everything else..

Torbjörn Larsson: 06/02/2015 03:08 CDT

Apologies accepted! You are right, I am happy if the scientists are happy. I don't know if Porco (say) is happy, but the Mars priority was given by the US Decadal Survey. "If a fossil has been found on Mars, that, if confirmed, makes its priority higher and justify a sample return mission." I wouldn't put it that way. There was a publication in Astrobiology by an expert about MISS features matching a list of tests with 3 different types of criteria. But the necessary microanalysis was lacking, so she couldn't claim a find. The Curiosity team was hedging, the lead said it wasn't too interesting but their own MISS expert described it as a a putative find on the SGU Fall web seminar (that we public has access to). The other putative find is only a twitter rumor of what the Curiosity team can publish when they are finished with an analysis, and it is I that noted that fossil organics was one of the explanations (mind of like the methane, just with less geophysical alternatives). While I would be all over this if I could set priorities, evidently cooler heads need to decide. :-)

Torbjörn Larsson: 06/02/2015 03:12 CDT

Oops, I forgot: Both putative finds would be within decimeters horizontally (but also vertically, so not from the same sediments), from the ancient lake locale. Also important, if the 2nd one materializes.

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