Europa New Frontiers Mission? (Or why I like the Europa Clipper concept even more now)
by Van Kane
Jupiter’s moon Europa has been a priority destination for NASA’s planetary program since the mid-1990s. With a deep ocean trapped beneath an icy shell on top and the rocky surface below, Europa is believed to have the chemicals and energy needed to host life. Over the course of almost two decades, I’ve seen plans for a better, really cheaper, faster mission that just needed a lot of new technology to be developed.
As if to balance that plan out, there was a plan for the planetary equivalent of a Battlestar Galactica mission that was both unaffordable and also required technology that still doesn’t exist. I thought we were close with the Jupiter Europa Orbiter (JEO, circa 2010) until new cost estimates showed that it, too, was unaffordable.
Now we have a proposed mission, the Europa Clipper, that doesn’t require substantial technology development and that has a cost estimate (~$2B) that puts it well within the cost range of NASA’s larger science missions. However, in today’s era of declining US federal budgets, the Clipper’s price tag is deemed unaffordable.
In a conversation with scientists on a NASA advisory panel, the head of the space agency’s Science program, John Grunsfeld discussed whether NASA should look at a Europa mission for half that of the Clipper mission. If it could be done, then a Europa mission could fit in the established New Frontiers program of planetary missions. (I want to emphasize that Grunsfeld’s conversation was informal and wasn’t announcing a policy decision.)…