NASA Wants Ideas for Mission to Jupiter’s Moon Europa

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NASA is asking the scientific community to help it devise a relatively low-budget mission to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa.

The space agency announced April 28 that it has issued a Request for Information (RFI) officially seeking ideas from outside researchers for a mission to study Europa and its subsurface ocean for less than $1 billion, not including launch.

“This is an opportunity to hear from those creative teams that have ideas on how we can achieve the most science at minimum cost,” John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, said in a statement.

“Europa is one of the most interesting sites in our solar system in the search for life beyond Earth,” Grunsfeld added. “The drive to explore Europa has stimulated not only scientific interest but also the ingenuity of engineers and scientists with innovative concepts.”

The deadline to submit ideas under the RFI is May 30, officials said.

At 3,100 kilometers wide, Europa is only slightly smaller than Earth’s moon. The jovian satellite harbors a large ocean of liquid water beneath its icy shell, providing a potential habitat for life as we know it.

Further, astronomers announced in December that they had detected a plume of water vapor erupting from Europa’s south polar region, suggesting that a mission to the moon may be able to collect samples from the ocean without even touching down.

NASA researchers have developed a number of Europa concept missions over the years, including one called the Europa Clipper that would perform multiple flybys of the moon. None of these is officially on the books, however. The Europa Clipper may be the frontrunner at the moment, but its estimated $2 billion price tag would have to come down considerably for it to get off the ground, space agency officials have said.

But the space agency has gotten some money to help develop technologies needed for a Europa mission. Congress appropriated $80 million for this purpose last year, and the White House is seeking $15 million more in its 2015 budget request. House appropriators would like to bump that figure to $100 million. 

NASA officials have said that they hope to launch a Europa mission in the mid-2020s. If that happens, the mission would follow closely on the heels of Europe’s Jupiter Icy moons Explorer mission, or JUICE, which is currently scheduled to blast off in 2022 to study the jovian satellites Callisto and Ganymede in addition to Europa.