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New Horizons is a Triumph for Space Advocates

And Europa will be the same

Posted by Casey Dreier

07-07-2015 15:40 CDT

Topics: Jupiter's moons, New Horizons, Europa, Pluto, Space Policy, Europa Clipper, Planetary Society Political Advocacy

It’s almost too good to be a coincidence. The very year that New Horizons arrives at Pluto—a mission hard fought for by the Society and its members—a new mission to Europa officially begins.

You can say that Europa is the new Pluto. The two missions share a common bond of dashed hopes and false starts despite being destinations long desired by scientists and the public alike. The time investment for both missions to be built, fly, and finally return data spans the decades. Both will rewrite textbooks and both will be historical monuments of exploration.

But remember this: New Horizons—what will be NASA’s greatest success of 2015—was cancelled multiple times in its early life, and many times before that in its previous incarnations. A mission to Pluto was not inevitable, despite the overwhelming scientific and public excitement. Same for Europa.

New Horizons (and the current state of the Europa mission) exist because of the unyielding commitment of many individuals within NASA, the scientific community, and external advocates like The Planetary Society. Back in the early 2000s, we were an aggressive force in lobbying for Pluto, making numerous visits to Capitol Hill and triggering over 25,000 letters of support from its members (then board member Bill Nye has vivid memories carting those around Congress). The industry magazine Aviation Week even presented us with a “Laurel” award for our Pluto advocacy efforts in 2002.

New Horizons at Pluto, July 2015

Dan Durda, SwRI

New Horizons at Pluto, July 2015
Artist's concept of New Horizons as it reaches Pluto.
Europa Flyby Concept Mission

NASA / JPL-Caltech

Europa Flyby Concept Mission
A solar-powered spacecraft could fly by Europa many times to achieve similar science return from an orbital mission, but avoid prolonged exposure to the harshest radiation environment around the moon.

That we are just now savoring the fruits of those Pluto efforts thirteen years later is a reminder of the long game that we play as space advocates. There’s a lot of space in space, as our CEO likes to say. It’s one of the most difficult problems to overcome. The delay in returns makes missions like Pluto (and Europa) easy to cancel in their early stages when they are still abstract concepts. It can be politically difficult, and NASA Administrators O’Keefe and Griffin, Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), and the Bush White House deserve our appreciation for making this mission happen, too. It’s part of their legacy.

The stunning images sent back by New Horizons reminds us all of the payoff that awaits us with these types of missions. Textbooks will be rewritten. Future scientists and engineers will recall this moment when they were inspired to enter those careers. We all feel the thrill of expanding the frontier of human knowledge. And we all should feel proud as space advocates that we played a small part in helping this become a reality.

Europa will be the same. Even under the most optimistic budget scenarios, a spacecraft wouldn’t arrive at the Jupiter system until the mid 2020s—nearly ten years from now. But when it does, and you see those first high-resolution images of that fractured, icy surface of one of the solar system’s most enigmatic moons, you can think back to those crucial moments—those moments when it really mattered—when you called your congressperson, or wrote your senator, or joined The Planetary Society—and feel a small bit of ownership over yet another historical achievement in human exploration.

It’s a great time to be a space advocate.

New Horizons' view of Pluto on June 9, 2015

NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI / Emily Lakdawalla

New Horizons' view of Pluto on June 9, 2015
Pluto and Charon as seen by New Horizons on June 9, 2015, from a distance of 42 million kilometers. Three 100-millisecond exposures were enlarged and then stacked to reduce JPEG artifacts, then downsampled to the original resolution.
See other posts from July 2015


Or read more blog entries about: Jupiter's moons, New Horizons, Europa, Pluto, Space Policy, Europa Clipper, Planetary Society Political Advocacy


Messy: 07/07/2015 07:27 CDT

You forgot to mention DAWN. That was cancelled AFTER construction of the craft had already started, and took plenty of lobbying (especially from the ESA, who had spent tens of millions already) to bring it back. The simple fact is, is that aside from Mars, NASA doesn't really want to do planetary science. They nearly cancelled Voyager 2's Uranus and Neptune flybys AFTER THEY WERE MOST OF THE WAY THERE!!!! for crying out loud. Hell, they LOST most of the data from the 1960s and '70s. Landsat's data was on a momentarily fashionalbe memory drive that couldn't be accessed as there were no buffers anymore. The ALSEP memory tapes were totally lost for YEARS. They had to reinvent obsolete memory technology so they could access all this stuff. Once they did....the redone Lunar Orbiter stuff from the '60s is magnificent. But back to what NASA wants and doesn't want. They didn't want DAWN and New Horizons, and these two unwanted probes complete the Solar System as it was known in 2000. These are the crown jewels for Solar system exploration in the 2010s...and NASA didn't WANT them!!!! The next great goal is finding life. That's why Europa's important. I don't think NASA wants to find life. Viking found something, that meteorite had something, but nobody wanted to deal with it. But it MUST be done, it's too important. In the meantime, there's Pluto and White Spot #5.

Barnacle Bill: 07/08/2015 05:23 CDT

I keep thinking about Mr Clyde Tombaugh now that we are seeing Pluto and Charon in New Horizons images as real objects in their own rights and not just faint stars. How I wish Mr Tombaugh is still alive with us today to witness these moments with us. Having met Mr Tombaugh when I was a child when he came to Astronomical Society of Vicotria, Australia in Melbourne Museum (then still located in Swanston St, Melbourne) and learnt much later in The Planets (superb BBC documentary) that NASA wrote to Mr Tombaugh for permission to visit his planet with New Horizons probe and how he 'melted' when he received the letter from NASA (such a wonderful and thoughtful gesture from NASA). I really hope NASA would invite Mr Tombaugh's family at Mission Control when New Horizons reach closest approach or when the close encounter photos begin to trickle back to Mission Control's Big screens. I think it would be nice for NASA and for us to honour Mr Tombaugh this way, and for us all to not forget that Pluto is HIS planet and we are visiting his world. Thank you very much Mr Tombaugh. Barnacle Bill

stephen : 07/08/2015 06:00 CDT

Casey Dreier wrote: "It’s almost too good to be a coincidence. The very year that New Horizons arrives at Pluto—a mission hard fought for by the Society and its members—a new mission to Europa officially begins" It's usually customary to break open the champagne to toast success AFTER that success has been achieved, not in mere hopeful anticipation of it. As the recent safe mode episode vividly illustrated New Horizons is not at Pluto yet and the putative Europa mission has yet to reach the launch let alone Europa. In other words be careful not to count chickens which have yet to hatch. If nothing else you risk offending the gods of random chance and throwing a whammy on all such enterprises. :-(

Richard Adams: 07/08/2015 03:06 CDT

Perhaps I sound like a pessimist with this, but New Horizons actually leads me to become ever more depressed about planetary sciences future. Why would I dare say that? It's simple: For myself, born in 1983, New Horizons represents what I estimate will be one of the high points of my entire life. Honestly. I was born *just* too late for Voyager - such that even Uranus+Neptune were "history" by the time I was aware of anything. I participated in all the political action when Pluto missions faced cancellation around 2000 - sent my name along with NH's CD when it came time to launch. For a decade, July 2015 has been the single most important month I've been looking forward to. These past weeks have verified all that excitement - thrilling doesn't even begin to cover it. We are seeing a planet (yes, a planet) for the *very* first time! No human being *ever* alive - no living being period- has ever seen what we're seeing! How could you not want to scream with excitement?! And yet... the general public reaction... tepid doesn't begin to cover it. I don't even want to guess how many in the US public are even aware of this mission today - not all that many, I'd wager. If *this* can't take peoples breath away vis-a-vis planetary sciences exploration, then what will...? Clearly, Pluto's demotion didn't help things along, but it just seems the layperson doesn't have it in them to be thrilled by such spectacular, impossible things. And for that, we're all the worse off.

allen gustav: 07/13/2015 03:47 CDT

I too find New Horizons bittersweet. Yes we are going to be in for a treat tomorrow when data starts coming back from the flyby. Yes we see Europa seriously being considered. But knowing that we have, at best, 2 small missions' worth of fuel for deep space exploration after the MARS 2020 rover, I also find my giddiness going to sorrow. Fuel production to support even a 10 year mission cadence is still at least 20 years off for DOE. The best power technology and fuel production are drawing from the same shrinking funding pool, and it isn't enough to support both. Perhaps not big enough to support either. This may be the last real exploration outside of solar power that I and my kids get to see in our lifetimes.

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