NASA’s 2016 budget proposal has provided a small amount of funding to formate a plan to create a flagship Europa mission. The funding will allow for an Agency level KDP-A (Key Decision Point), prior to entering formulation in the coming months. Space Launch System (SLS) managers have already been working with JPL on providing the launch vehicle option for the spacecraft.
The ambition of sending a spacecraft to Europa is nothing new – such as in the planetary science decadal survey – but the mission has yet to receive the required funding to make it a reality.
This is despite the clear importance the Jovian moon has in NASA’s goal to find life elsewhere in our solar system.
“Jupiter’s moon Europa is one of the most likely places to find current life beyond our Earth,” noted NASA in its overview of upcoming budget priorities.
“For over 15 years NASA has developed concepts to explore Europa and determine if it is habitable based on characteristics of its vast oceans (twice the size of all of Earth’s oceans combined), the ice surface – ocean interface, the chemical composition of the intriguing, irregular brown surface areas, and the current geologic activity providing energy to the system,” noted the budget overview documentation on Monday.
The spacecraft that would be tasked with a mission to study the moon is called the Europa Clipper.
It has been envisioned that such a spacecraft would be sent into orbit around Jupiter in order to perform a detailed investigation of Europa. The mission calls for a highly capable, radiation-tolerant spacecraft working in a long, looping orbit around Jupiter to perform repeated close flybys of Europa.
Whenever this mission is mentioned, analysts continue to point out it won’t become a reality until NASA commits to the required funding.
This was the case when the Europa Clipper gained several mentions in SLS documentation, claiming the spacecraft could enjoy a speedy transit to Jupiter via the powerful rocket’s increased capability. The problem is the cost of the mission would be greatly increased by riding on the expensive SLS.
However, that did not deter several studies being conducted between the launch vehicle and spacecraft stewards, ranging from an exercise in planning between SLS and JPL, through to payload fairing designs.
Such evaluations are commonplace, with SLS teams working notional Design Reference Mission (DRM) parameters to find missions for the monster rocket in the 2020s.
However, it has been noted there is now “frequent communication” between the Europa office at JPL and the SLS Program Office, with an exchange of data, analysis results and engineering computer models between the two organizations.
The SLS management also called for a System Requirements Review (SRR) late last year, working with the workhorse version of the SLS – the Block 1B – which is set to launch the majority of SLS missions in the 2020s.
While such a potential mission is not hand tied to the SLS, the benefits of utilizing the superior performance of SLS would result in the aforementioned mission transit time being vastly reduced, when compared to the eight or so years it would take via a current launch vehicle.
The marriage of a flagship science mission with SLS may also prove to be of interest politically, especially with lawmakers who support SLS.
The mission, involving SLS, also gained an initial – albeit notional – launch target of June 2022, with a backup opportunity in July 2023.
Based on the latest budget numbers, the latter date would likely be the most realistic NET (No Earlier Than) target, unless political interest in the mission advanced significantly.
This appears to have been pre-empted by SLS management, with the notional Europa mission now showing as 2025 in the L2 SLS manifest update – one of two SLS missions that year.
Notably, the budget documentation has at least provided official acknowledgement of the study work that has been ongoing of late – at least on the spacecraft side.
“After thorough investigation of concept options, the study teams have identified a flyby concept that delivers the most science for the least cost and risk of all the concepts studied,” noted the budget outline.
“The flyby concept appears to be feasible based on solar power and without requiring any new technology development, despite the harsh radiation environment that the spacecraft will encounter during the flybys.”
It was also noted that NASA will establish a Europa project in FY 2015, initiating the formulation phase.
“In FY 2016, the project will formulate requirements, architecture, planetary protection requirements, risk identification and mitigation plans, cost and schedule range estimates, and payload accommodation for a potential mission to Europa,” it added.
Numerous other references are made in the budget overview, such as calling for NASA to investigate technologies for the study and characterization of the surface and subsurface of Europa, adding the mission concept may require significant modification depending on what researchers learn in FY 2015 about the existence of active plumes from Europa’s south pole and the accommodations requirements in the awarded instrument proposals.
For now, NASA is looking to proceed with pre-formulation activities, beginning with an Agency KDP-A prior to entering formulation in spring 2015.
Objectives versus cost will likely be a major element of the evaluations.
“NASA could accomplish over 80 percent of the science that a Europa Orbiter would achieve for about 50 percent of the cost with a mission that stays in Jupiter orbit and conducts many focused flybys of Europa,” added the outline.
“NASA completed a series of trade studies, technology efforts, and independent reviews, including determining the technical feasibility of conducting the flyby mission concept with solar power. NASA conducted a Center-led Mission Concept Review on the flyby mission design.
“NASA also addressed a long-standing risk for a Europa mission by continuing the funding of 15 grants for instrument development and risk reduction under the Instrument Concepts for Europa Exploration program, and solicited proposals for flight instruments for a potential mission to Europa.”
The information was released as part of an 18.5 billion dollar budget proposal, which was accompanied by NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden’s “State Of NASA” address from the Kennedy Space Center.
(Images: NASA, JPL and L2 artist Nathan Koga via L2’s SLS sections, which includes, presentations, videos, graphics and internal – interactive with actual SLS engineers – updates on the SLS and HLV, available on no other site.)
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