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New Findings are Conclusive: Europa is crying out for exploration

What are we waiting for?

Posted by Casey Dreier

26-09-2016 13:36 CDT

Topics: Jupiter's moons, Europa, Europa Clipper

The Hubble Space Telescope has once again detected evidence for water jets emanating from Europa’s south pole, NASA announced today. While the scientists on the panel—including The Planetary Society’s newest board member, Dr. Britney Schmidt—emphasized that this detection was at the limit of Hubble’s capabilities, this only adds to the number of compelling reasons to explore this enigmatic moon of Jupiter.

Bobak Ferdowsi, currently working on the Europa mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, concisely summed up the implications of regular Europa plumes:

The plumes were first spotted by the Hubble in 2012. Since then, a robotic mission to explore Europa has slowly worked its way into existence. Congress has written into U.S. law that a Europa mission should launch in 2022 with a follow-on lander in 2024. Both would use the Space Launch System rocket to arrive at Europa in three years. NASA has resisted this rapid pace, since it would require increased funding for its Planetary Science Division, which is not a high priority for the agency at the moment.

This story of the politics behind a Europa mission is full of missed opportunities and baffling institutional resistance. Congress had appropriated over $200 million for a mission to explore the jovian moon before NASA officially requested the mission in mid-2015. Even then, NASA proposed a mission that would launch in “the mid-to-late 2020s”, which, due to the great distance between Earth and Jupiter, meant that any science return would be pushed off into the 2030s.

Since 2013, Planetary Society members and supporters have sent 384,000 messages to the White House and Congress in support of a mission to explore Europa. We’ve made huge progress since we began, but every year has been a battle to move this mission forward. This budget cycle has been no exception.

NASA requested $125 million less for Europa in next year than it received in 2016. A House bill would give much more—$260 million—but the entire U.S. budget is wrapped up in election-year politics. The Senate specified no budget for Europa, and proposed a chilling $300 million cut to the Planetary Science program. If Congress cannot pass a full budget, the mission receives the lowest of all possible proposed budgets, and it is almost certain that mission would be delayed beyond the early 2020s.

So let’s review the situation:

  • Europa is a prime destination for testing the hypothesis of life beyond Earth

  • This is because Europa has a long-lived liquid water ocean

  • Europa is venting liquid water into space, possibly from its deep ocean, which makes it easier to directly analyze the chemical contents of the water and potentially test the life hypothesis

  • A mission to Europa is blessed by the National Academies of Science, and ranked as the second-highest major mission priority after the Mars 2020 rover

  • Congress has repeatedly signaled its intention to fully-fund an aggressive development schedule for Europa, while maintaining balance with NASA’s planetary science program (in other words, they’ve provided “new money” for this mission)

  • A Europa mission solves problems for NASA’s Space Launch System rocket program while cutting travel time to Jupiter in half

  • I think the choice here is simple: if NASA wants to directly test the hypothesis of life living on another world, we need to get this mission to Europa going. We should also explore how an ongoing program focused on the ocean worlds of our solar system can systematically understand the habitable worlds in our own cosmic backyard.

Today is just another example that Europa is crying out for exploration. We should heed its call.

See other posts from September 2016


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


ReaperX: 09/26/2016 03:48 CDT

This situation is making me angrier with each time I read about it. Europa and Enceladus should be our new top priorities for space exploration. Nothing even comes close, certainly not long dead Mars. Meanwhile, NASA leadership plods on with its ancient, long-term Mars exploration strategy that dates back to the year 1996 and predates most of the Galileo and all of the Cassini data. We need a u-turn of our exploration priorities. Mars needs to be scaled back and be just another science target that needs to wait its turn. Ocean worlds need to be the new overriding priority. In times of near-starvation level funds for planetary exploration, blowing much of the budget on a no longer justifiable Mars obsession that has us going there every two years, while taking multi-decadal breaks between missions to just about everything else, including the most promising destinations for finding current and thriving (not dead or dying) life outside of Earth, is not smart.

Red: 09/26/2016 04:03 CDT

I had a feeling the news would be about Europa's plumes. It is nice to hear we've found stronger evidence for them now. With luck both the flyby/orbiter and lander come to pass. This does make me wonder if a plume sample return should be considered now that we have more confirmation.

RTA2: 09/26/2016 10:05 CDT

ReaperX - NASA and Mars circa 2000-10s+ is frightfully similar to the USSR's Venera program. Both arrogantly and irrationally carry on exploration of long dead worlds whilst real targets beckon. Each space program suffers dramatically as a result, witnessing an almost death spiral whilst trying to ignore the actual flaws plaguing the "bigger picture" of each program and barrelling onward as though each planetary target really gave them something to brag about. Europa should be destination 1-1,000^1000. Enceladus should've had an Orbiter exploring those plumes a decade ago. Titan... my lord, Titan should have a fleet of blimps, sailboats and rovers in action/transit this very moment. I cannot believe we are a decade on from Huygens, and there isn't even a followup in planning stages. I'm 32, and I'll likely be dead before science returns from such a mission. (Side note, but Kepler, too, should have had many a follow-up by now. Instead, James Webb continues to suck trillions.) JUNO? Its exciting and all, don't get me wrong, but we've sent a probe to unravel Jupiter's magnetic field - TO Jupiter/Europa - and yet... not a single instrument to take a peek at Europa?! The state of NASA is beyond depressing. The worst part, there's no real "option B" to hope picks up the slack. ESA? Not really, not at the level NASA should be at today. You've got commercial for Earth orbit+asteroid mining. China for manned space flight/colonization. But the *SINGLE* most important question in all human history has an answer in our own backyard using tech/missions that could've launched two decades ago, with no fewer than three separate targets. And they continue to go ignored, as leadership actually fights *against* missions there - meanwhile, the slow, tedious march on a forever dead red world continues apace (a snail's crawl).

Haruki Chou: 09/26/2016 10:43 CDT

"... its Planetary Science Division, which is not a high priority for the agency ..." I guess it's better to spend $trillions on the useless space station. As long as the government pays, who cares whether it is of any use.

Paul McCarthy: 09/27/2016 01:02 CDT

Don't really need to say anything. Casey and the four commentaries above say it all, pretty perfectly. Only to add that the mismatch between wonderful opportunities and NASA's own desire (ie, lack thereof) to take them is becoming vomit-making and worthy of tremendous ridicule -- as noted by others above, more like a fossilised Soviet agency than an arm of the most entrepreneurial nation: one fundamentally built and self-defined upon exploration and upon grasping the golden opportunities.

ReaperX: 09/27/2016 11:41 CDT

Great comments RTA2. I have only one thing to add: I wish the Planetary Society would take a more adversarial role towards NASA. The Society exists - and I'm paying my dues - to advance planetary exploration, not to support NASA unconditionally. Don't get me wrong, statements from the Society's leadership such as Mr. Dreier's commentary here have been fairly clear regarding what our priorities should be for some time now. Bill Nye's open letter to president Obama in 2013 cited Europa and Enceladus (but not Mars) as the most likely places to find life. However, the Society still refuses to address the big elephant in the room - that these goals are not going to be reached for decades unless we dramatically scale back our unjustifiable Mars program. It's 2016 and we're in the midst of wasting another $2.1 billion on another Mars rover mission that can't even return the samples it will collect and will basically demand another expensive mission soon afterwards to collect and return those samples. Those are strong-arm tactics of the Mars people to guarantee themselves yet another mission. We're only going to Europa because a Republican from Texas of all people is dragging NASA kicking and screaming. With new leadership in the White House next January, this is the perfect time for the Society to step up its criticism and say what it has been avoiding saying clearly for fear of antagonizing the powerful Mars science lobby: stop wasting money on Mars.

RTA2: 09/27/2016 04:01 CDT

I agree 100% vis-a-vis playing the adversarial role. Well, not merely for adversary's sake, of course, but all the same, after this past decade (really, ever since Bush's Lunar push went bye-bye utterly devoid of any replacement vision/fundamental mission; then the Shuttle fleet was mothballed, *again* without any replacement in sight or mind, as we lost all access to launching humans to space independently; and lastly, now, the state of NASA appears to be one that's comatose and all but heading for outright death after 2020-2021), any pro-space grouping that does anything except a much deserved "holding the feet of such ineptitude to burning coals" is being quite disingenuous. There is simply no excuse for NASA being what NASA now is - even in spite of political climates or more basic realities where the general public just doesn't care; regardless of the budget apportioned to NASA today, enough money that amazing things could still be getting done... which aren't! NASA had some $18.5 billion for 2016 - that's money that could entirely fund several A+ planetary exploration missions (unmanned, but of course) in but a single year's worth! There are still a handful of missions to launch from better days, but after Webb+Mars2020, the picture is crazily bleak. I mean, my goodness, China has more manned spaceflight capability at present than NASA does! What a sorry state, indeed!! NASA needs to abandon all manned aspects - commercial is now taking that over, its always been way more expensive than value produced compared to unmanned exploration, etc. The news from SpaceX today is heartening, although we've heard many a grand vision that never left the drawing board before, so who knows... likewise, China is going to soar to greater manned spaceflight heights than we ever did in the next 10-15 years, so there are multiple options here where NASA can shelve manned exploring.

RTA2: 09/27/2016 04:04 CDT

Ultimately, it appears as though the same exact schizophrenia/inability to form a coherent, unified, singular and resounding vision that afflicts NASA has infected the primary causes for space advocacy. The main reason I have been a member of the Society (and originally discovered it) was the New Horizons mission - Pluto has always been important to me, and so that mission, even as a kid, was critical. There, the Society pushed hard, and won the day - that same type of mindset and purpose is what has been sorely lacking this past decade, and is needed now more than ever. I think it starts with first finding a handful of causes near and dear, that can be successfully fought for. Not "more funding for NASA", or "increase planetary science budget" - nor even "We need to go to Europa!" - but rather, finding/creating legitimate mission proposals and rallying behind them with all due force. To this end, perhaps the Society should hire a person or two with the expertise to design such works in order to form a "review board" where credentialed sorts can highlight (or even for rough outlines of largely original missions) projects that are necessary, feasible and logical given existing realities of $$$+tech. But there must be something to latch on to, which is quite lacking just now - New Horizons showed the wild success such an approach can have, when campaigns can be done by the masses which can point out very narrow, specific things and their necessity to those mostly uninformed in positions of power.

RTA2: 09/27/2016 04:32 CDT

With target destinations in mind and those proposed missions in hand; able to present cold, hard facts about them such as their required overall budget, the purpose they serve and how that ties into a structured, larger "vision"/program, the science returns expected from them, and other potential applications for technological hurdles they pose (meaning ye olde "cherry's on top", where funding that mission needs something that doesn't exist, and that something is a bonus which might be utilized elsewhere, here on everyday Earth or beyond)- only then you can have large groups better fighting the good fight for the future of human endeavor (and against the ever present, as you aptly put it, "Mars science lobby.") Rather than (once again) vaguely making an effort, here with "Mars is wasteful, elsewhere isn't!", you can actually fight against such things point by point, far more effectively. "$3 billion to say maybe water ran here about as long ago in years as this mission takes in dollars? $1.3 billion to detect and analyze contents of Europan cryovolcanoes, gravitational study of Europa to explore its inner structure and contents, surveying expected global "ocean" of liquid water, basic organic trace molecular 'sniffer'..." or what all have you. Clearly, although one couldn't have imagined it, even now NASA still refuses to budge on Mars. Their steadfastness and irrationality there is downright inconceivable. One would have imagined Phoenix+Curiosity to be nearing an end - but, no, along comes 2020, a mission *still* without a sample return function... meaning the worst (aka most expensive) is still yet to come! Undoubtedly, the late 2020s will find every penny NASA gets foolishly trying to pay for a lander+return mission.

dougforworldsexplr: 09/27/2016 08:08 CDT

I also hope that NASA gives the go-ahead to the proposed Europa Clipper mission especially with further discovery of plumes there. However I think there is still some value and even possibility of life or at least finding more organics on Mars but NASA needs to be better focused on them. In particular the Viking nuclear labelled release experiment designed by Dr. Gilbert Levin I believe did possibly indicate the detection of life but NASA doesn't seemed to have let him design a further similar experiment since then such as on Curiosity. The other Viking experiment, the gas chromatograph was said to not have detected life on Mars and has been used to generally say that Viking in general didn't detect any life on Mars. However it did detect chloromethane and some similar compounds which were then dismissed as some cleaning fluid not fully enough removed from Viking from on-earth preparations. But from the Phoenix lander we know there is widespread perchlorates in the top soil layers of Mars and they would most likely have been in the soil samples taken by Viking (and Curiosity). Of course these perchlorates when in a heated sample with some organics, perhaps including microbes, produces chlorinated simple organics like chloromethane dichloromethane etc. which were observed in heated samples in the Curiosity and Viking orbiter SAM or similar oven. If NASA and I heard the European Space Agency is, for its ExoMars 2020 lander, going to use lasers instead of an oven to heat samples so they might not destroy any possible organics or even microbes in the Martian top soil layer can be persuaded by Dr. Levin to have another copy of his labelled release experiment, which I heard he is trying to do, we could demonstrate there is something worth exploring more and that possibly Mars is not dead now as some people think. I hope he and they succeed but that NASA would use some of these techniques with more promise of worthwhile research on Mars including for finding life.

Tom: 09/27/2016 08:53 CDT

Will Juno be getting any close passes by Europa or sending data of Europa that will help us better understand Europa?

Tim: 09/28/2016 02:40 CDT

"New Findings are Conclusive: Europa is crying out for exploration" ^ I do so agree with this. These plumes seem to resemble those that we have already seen on Enceladus and so any orbiter mission to Europa ought to have the necessary instrumentation to fully determine the molecular composition of what's in those plumes.

Messy: 09/28/2016 04:02 CDT

Voyager 2 took a picture of a plume decades ago. I remember reading about it in Science News, I wonder if the magazine still exists? If it does, it whould have been in a 1979 or '80 issue. The quest for extraterrestrial life should be our #1 priority.

dougforworldsexplr: 09/28/2016 06:00 CDT

Hi Messy, yes Science News does still exist and I just renewed my current subscription to it. It has been published all the time since 1979/80 although now it has 1/2 the number of issues per year being now biweekly instead of weekly but with twice as many pages per issue with now 32 pages per issue compared to 16 pages before. One thing about the magazine that would make it easier to find an article in 1979/80 compared to now or more recently is that in 1979/80 Science News had semi-annual indexes in the last issues of June and December by subject but they, the indexes, were discontinued several years ago and I have not been able to find alternate topical indexes of the more recent issues' articles even though on one or a couple times I have contacted Science News about this.

RTA2: 09/29/2016 10:32 CDT

Tom - To answer your question, no, Juno is indeed *not* to send any real data back on Europa - which is why I referenced it, and the insanity of sending a new probe to the Jupiter system which ignores Europa and life there entirely. Its insane - and proof NASA is rather uninterested in Europa at this time... mind boggling, really. The reason NASA gave? And I quote "we're super interested in Jupiter" at this time.

RTA2: 09/29/2016 10:37 CDT

Yep, another active Science News subscriber here - even with the changes, I still quite enjoy it and get a lot out of it. Its nice to have an all encompassing *recent* science news roundup, that extends beyond my primary interest of planetary science+astronomy. (NSS, Planetary, Astronomy+Sky & Telescope). I'd definitely recommend subscribing to it anew, its well worth it, IMO.

Karen: 09/30/2016 06:39 CDT

Casey - we were told in an earlier blog (from well before this discovery, and I think it was written by Emily) that Juno would attempt observations of the Galilean moons later in its mission, and that it could potentially observe plumes on Europa - but only if they contain ice crystals rather than just gas. Can you or anyone else update us on that possibility?

RTA2: 10/01/2016 05:55 CDT

Karen, what you were looking for is: It was also written by a Juno team member. The key note here? The most significant opportunity for Juno to do Europa science would be to follow up on the plumes possibly detected by Hubble Space Telescope. Confirming Hubble's detection would be very scientifically valuable. Any information on the source location would be valuable. This science goal just may not be possible with the large distances from Juno to Europa, but we will look. Aka Juno+Europa is something of a lark - it almost certainly won't return data, and if it does, that small chance would largely only confirm Hubble...

Torbjörn Larsson: 10/10/2016 11:18 CDT

To balance some of the unevidenced claims made in the thread, it is likely Mars has crustal life since it once had long periods of surface habitability, same as when life emerged on Earth. Since it is much cheaper and faster to get there it is still the prime location for astrobiology, even in the larger context of being a similar terrestrial planet. Of course we want to explore the ice moons too, especially since it is our only option to study the perhaps largest biosphere type. Europa and Enceladus are prime targets, but despite the farther distance to Enceladus it is perhaps the most exciting one. We know there are alkaline hydrothermal vents driving the plumes, the same process that is implied to have started life on Earth.

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