NASA selects science instruments for proposed Europa mission

by Chris Bergin

NASA has selected nine out of 33 proposed instruments for inclusion in a proposed mission to the tantalizing Jovian moon known as Europa. With a primary goal of evaluating if the moon is habitable, the mission is now heading towards a Key Decision Point (KDP) to build towards “formalization”. Launching in the 2020s, the mission may be lofted by the Space Launch System (SLS).

Europa Mission:

A number of hurdles lay in wait for the proposed mission, mostly relating to funding. A small amount money has been provided in the NASA budget to move the project forward, with 10s of millions allocated to the science equipment.

NASA’s fiscal year 2016 budget request includes $30 million to formulate a mission to Europa. However, the mission itself is estimated to cost around two billion dollars, not including the launch vehicle.

The launch vehicle option has been discussed in depth on the SLS side of NASA.

Z23Utilizing the Europa Clipper evaluations, the interest was highlighted in SLS documentation, claiming the spacecraft could enjoy a speedy transit to Jupiter via the powerful rocket’s increased capability.

Several studies have been conducted between the launch vehicle and spacecraft stewards, ranging from an exercise in planning between SLS and JPL, through to payload fairing designs.

The next Technical Interchange Meeting (TIM) is set to take place on June 30, involving numerous parties including JPL.

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.

2015-02-03 00_21_48-L2 Level_ Space Launch System Update Notes And Discussion - Sept, 2014 onwardsThe evaluations stepped up a gear to involve the Ground Ops team at KSC, through to the Launch Services Program (LSP).

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.

2015-02-03 00_24_36-Europa - Google SearchThe Europa mission itself would be of flagship interest to politicians, with a key driver relating to finding life in our solar system.

In fact, NASA claims Jupiter’s moon Europa is one of the most likely places to find current life beyond our Earth. Despite this, only the Galileo probe has paid it close attention, yet that was enough to provide the clues into what is a fascinating moon.

“Europa has tantalized us with its enigmatic icy surface and evidence of a vast ocean, following the amazing data from 11 flybys of the Galileo spacecraft over a decade ago and recent Hubble observations suggesting plumes of water shooting out from the moon,” noted John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

“We’re excited about the potential of this new mission and these instruments to unravel the mysteries of Europa in our quest to find evidence of life beyond Earth.”

2015-05-26-191441Those instruments – nine in total, downselected from 33 options – includes cameras and spectrometers to produce high-resolution images of Europa’s surface and determine its composition.

The Europa Imaging System (EIS) consists of wide and narrow angle cameras that 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. Galileo’s passes only managed to image about 10 percent of the surface, at a lower resolution.

2015-05-26-191718An ice penetrating radar will determine the thickness of the moon’s icy shell and search for subsurface lakes similar to those beneath Antarctica, while  a magnetometer will measure strength and direction of the moon’s magnetic field, which will allow scientists to determine the depth and salinity of its ocean.

A thermal instrument will scour Europa’s frozen surface in search of recent eruptions of warmer water, while additional instruments will search for evidence of water and tiny particles in the moon’s thin atmosphere.

“This is a giant step in our search for oases that could support life in our own celestial backyard,” added Curt Niebur, Europa program scientist at NASA. “We’re confident that this versatile set of science instruments will produce exciting discoveries on a much-anticipated mission.”

Interest in a lander remains on the cards but was played down during Tuesday’s announcement, based on the complexity involved in such an addition. Scientists note the surface of Europa would be very challenging for a successful landing of a probe, with numerous unknown factors based on current information.

2014-11-04 02_02_02-L2 Level_ Space Launch System Update Notes And Discussion - Sept, 2014 onwardsAlso unknown at this time is the launch date. Early 2020s is the target, but any time in the next decade could be selected.

The mission, involving SLS, has already gained an initial – albeit notional – launch target of June 2022, with a backup opportunity in July 2023.

That date was also classed as possible during the latest Europa mission overview on Tuesday, although SLS wasn’t mentioned at any point of the presser.

Based on the latest budget numbers, the latter date – in 2023 – 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.

The mission would send the solar-powered spacecraft into a long, looping orbit around the gas giant Jupiter to perform repeated close flybys of Europa over a three-year period. In total, the mission would perform 45 flybys at altitudes ranging from 16 miles to 1,700 miles (25 kilometers to 2,700 kilometers).

Images: NASA, JPL and L2 artist Nathan Koga via L2’s SLS sections.)

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