NASA Panel Briefed on Cheaper Europa Probes

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U.S. planetary scientists briefed a NASA advisory panel on concepts for a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa that would cost half as much as the $4.7 billion Jupiter Europa Orbiter flagship concept NASA shot down in 2011 after the White House announced plans to shrink the agency’s planetary program.

The concepts presented Oct. 3 to the NASA Advisory Council’s planetary science subcommittee included an orbiter and a more expensive craft dubbed Clipper that would perform 32 flybys of the icy jovian moon.

Clipper, according to charts presented by University of Arizona planetary scientist Phil Christensen, would cost $1.98 billion to $2.2 billion not including launch. The orbiter would cost $1.7 billion plus the cost of a launcher.

“There’s potential for Europa,” Christensen said. “If we can do high-resolution imaging without significant cost growth, we thought that would be an excellent idea that would feed forward to a future lander mission.”

The mission concepts were previously presented Sept. 25 at the National Research Council’s Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science meeting in Monrovia, Calif. — the same meeting where former NASA Mars czar Orlando Figueroa presented options for a revamped Mars exploration program that would conduct its first launch no sooner than 2018.

The authors of the Europa mission report, Louise Prockter of the Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., and Thomas Gavin and David Senske of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said their proposed missions would not duplicate the objectives of the European Space Agency’s Jupiter Icy Moons Exploration mission, which is slated for launch in 2022.

Advocates of outer planets exploration have argued against a myopic focus on Mars. That point of view was reflected in the National Academy of Sciences’ latest 10-year planetary science roadmap, or decadal survey, which said NASA should pursue a mission to Europa later this decade if the agency chooses not to undertake a Mars sample-return mission. The White House in early 2012 formally withdrew from a Mars sample caching campaign with the European Space Agency because of cost concerns.

NASA officials have said that before the agency could seriously consider another science mission on a scale of the $2.5 billion Curiosity rover that landed on Mars in August, it will have to complete the $8.7 billion James Webb Space Telescope. The overbudget and behind-schedule telescope is slated to launch in October 2018.