WASHINGTON — NASA’s decision in its fiscal year 2016 budget proposal to formally start work on a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa generated excitement in the planetary science community, but that joy is tempered by the potential end of three ongoing missions.
The 2016 budget proposal includes $30 million for a mission to Europa, a large icy moon believed to have subterranean oceans of liquid water that potentially could harbor life. That mission, currently in a “pre-formulation” phase, will pass a development milestone called Key Decision Point A this spring and enter Phase A, a concept and technology development stage.
The mission concept NASA has been studying is commonly known as “Europa Clipper.” That spacecraft would enter orbit around Jupiter and make a series of close flybys of Europa, rather than go directly into orbit around Europa. That would allow the mission to conduct most of the science of an orbiter mission at approximately half the cost.
The $30 million NASA is seeking for the Europa mission is double the $15 million it requested in its 2015 budget proposal, the first time the agency requested funding for it. It is, though, far less than the $100 million that Congress provided for the mission in the fiscal year 2015 omnibus spending bill. Congress also appropriated $75 million in 2013 and $80 million in 2014 for Europa mission studies.
NASA Chief Financial Officer David Radzanowski said in a teleconference with reporters Feb. 2 that the $30 million NASA requested was part of a five-year plan that seeks $285 million for the mission through 2020. That is in contrast with most of the rest of the budget proposal, where projections for fiscal years 2017 through 2020 are considered notional only.
“For the first time, this budget does assume a five-year funding profile for a mission to Europa,” he said. “The current funding profile would assume a launch in the mid-2020s.”
Despite the lower funding levels in the request for Europa compared with congressional appropriations, supporters of the mission were pleased that NASA is advancing work on it.
“It’s a huge deal,” Casey Dreier, director of advocacy for the Planetary Society, said in a Feb. 3 interview. “We cannot be more excited about it.”
However, the budget could spell the end of three existing missions by fiscal year 2017. The 2016 budget request includes no funding for the Mars rover Opportunity or for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), which received a combined $26.4 million in 2014. The budget does request $12.3 million for Mars Odyssey, which has been orbiting Mars since 2001, but zeros out the mission in 2017.
The NASA budget document suggests that a growing number of technical issues with Opportunity, which landed on Mars in January 2004, is behind the decision to end the mission. “After a long, productive mission life, Opportunity has started to show signs of age, including recent problems with its flash memory,” the document states. It offers no explanation for the decisions regarding LRO or Mars Odyssey.
Radzanowski said NASA plans to evaluate the operations of LRO and Opportunity this summer. “We will identify potential funds for the potential continuation of operations” if they remain in good condition, he said.
Dreier, who called the decision to end LRO and Opportunity “a total surprise,” said it detracted from what was overall a good budget proposal for planetary science. “It’s a little frustrating,” he said, but added he was optimistic Congress would step in to support those missions and increase funding for Europa.
One member of Congress already plans to push for increased planetary science funding. In a Feb. 2 statement, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), whose district includes NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, criticized the reduced funding for Europa and plans to end LRO and Opportunity in the NASA budget proposal.
“Last year, Congress sent a message to the Administration not to shortchange planetary science, and sadly that message was not received,” Schiff said in the statement. “It was my hope that this year Congress would not have to fight the Administration again over cuts to planetary science, but proponents on Capitol Hill are ready to get to work and increase the planetary science numbers.”