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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

NASA Has Its Sights Set on Europa

By Phil Plait

Yesterday, NASA announced its Fiscal Year 2016 budget request. This is not the actual budget it will be getting. It’s basically a handshake between NASA and the White House, agreeing on what they want Congress to approve. Officials from NASA and the Obama administration have been hammering this out for a while, stressing missions and activities they like. The House and Senate have to create their own budgets, agree on those, then submit that to the president to sign.

That last part is super important, as you’ll see. In the end, the enacted budget generally resembles the earlier version, but also tends to have key differences.

So with that in mind, first, here’s the budget request itself. Note that it’s rather long, but NASA has a helpful summary.

Here are some key things I want to point out.

All These Worlds Are Yours

Easily the biggest news from the budget is the request for $30 million to start planning a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa. Just getting that in the request is really exciting!

Europa is roughly the size of our own Moon, but made of ice and rock. We’ve known for some time that it harbors an ocean of liquid water under its surface, but we don’t know as much about it as we’d like. It’s a very tempting target. There are arguments that we should go to Enceladus, a moon of Saturn, instead, since that has geysers shooting up from its south pole, making sample collection easier. But Saturn is twice as far away as Jupiter, which means more time to get there and (in general) less mass in the science instruments as well. As much as I’d like to go to Enceladus, given the current state of NASA’s budget, I think Europa makes more sense.

NASA has been doing a concept study for a mission called the Europa Clipper, and it’s a good bet the actual mission will be based on it. The idea is not to land—that’s pretty difficult and presents a lot of technical issues*—but instead have an orbital mission that swings around Jupiter and dips low over Europa’s surface. The moon orbits deep within Jupiter’s powerful magnetic field, and the radiation environment there is killer. Literally: A human on the surface of Europa would receive a lethal dose of particle radiation in about a day.

But that sort of mission can tell us a lot about conditions on and underneath Europa, and I think it’s very much worth a shot. I’m glad NASA is looking at it. At this point, normally, I’d be throwing a bucket of ice water on all this by saying Congress has to pass this plan. But here’s the kicker: Europa has a champion in Congress, Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas). He’s a big supporter of this mission, vocally so, and I’m pretty sure he’ll stand firm for this funding.

In recent years, the White House has inexplicably been trying to cut planetary science funding, which frankly is nuts. It’s one of the most successful areas of NASA, including for public support. So the interesting thing to me here is not that Congress is behind going to Europa, but that the White House is. Mind you, a few months ago, when NASA released a remastered image of Europa (seen at the top of this post) together with a video about all the cool science they could do there, it seemed pretty obvious they were prepping for this announcement.

Well, good on them. I’ll note that there’s money in this request for the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE, yes, seriously), a European Space Agency–led mission planned for a 2022 launch. NASA is contributing instruments to it. This could be a really nice kick-start to a new wave of outer moons exploration.

SOFIA’s Choice

Europa wasn’t the only good news in the budget request. I’m glad to see funding restored for SOFIA, an airplane-based infrared observatory. That was cut last year from the White House budget, and the new money looks like it will be pending a science review, but it’s nice to see that in there.

There’s also money for Hubble, James Webb Space Telescope, and for other projects like Near Earth Object observations and the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, an ambitious follow-on to Kepler. That’s all cool.

But …

Not all the news is good, of course. I was very surprised to see money zeroed out for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which is still doing great work at our Moon, and especially for the Mars rover Opportunity. Oppy is probably the single greatest investment NASA has ever made, since it’s still tooling around Mars after 10 years … when it was supposed to be a three-month mission. But I know this is a devil’s choice for NASA, given future exploration of Mars needs that money, and the pot is limited. Funding might be found for Oppy if it’s still performing later this year, so we’ll see. Maybe Congress will re-fund LRO too. We’ll have to wait and see.

And sigh, Education and Public Outreach; that’s still a mess. Not much has changed there, from what I can tell, since from when the White House inexplicably decided to give that over to groups like the Smithsonian and the Department of Education.

And, of course, there’s plenty of money to develop the Orion capsule and the Space Launch System, the monster rocket designed to carry it. Regular readers know I am no fan of SLS, and in fact wouldn’t mind seeing it canceled and that money redirected to other projects. In fact, with the SpaceX Falcon Heavy ready for a demo flight this year, commercial ventures will be years ahead of NASA when it comes to putting people back in space.

NASA does have more money earmarked for commercial space, which is great. But spending billions (nearly $3 billion in this budget, all told) on a rocket and capsule with no real concrete plan of what to do with them seems like a pretty terrible idea in my opinion.

But politics being what they are, I know NASA won’t cancel SLS any time soon, or ever. That’s too bad.

Still, even given all that, this budget is something I can live with. It restores planetary funding, adds in some pretty cool stuff, and still gives Congress breathing room to work with. And I have to say, a Europa mission does get my heart pumping: That’s precisely the kind of thing NASA needs to do! It’s solid science, important work, will capture the public’s imagination, and is the kind of cutting-edge technology NASA should be boldly doing.

I will be writing my Congresscritter soon about this budget, telling him what I think (essentially what you just read, but in fewer words). If you’re a U.S. citizen I urge you to do so as well. This budget is just so many words until Congress approves it.

*And we’ve been warned not to.

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