Europa lander
An artist's concept of a Europa lander, which would look for evidence of past or present life on the icy moon of Jupiter during a 20-day mission on the surface. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA is preparing to solicit proposals for a Europa lander mission despite uncertain funding for it.

NASA issued a “community announcement” Wednesday stating it would issue an announcement of opportunity later this year for instruments that could fly on the proposed lander.

NASA will use fiscal year 2017 funding to support Phase A studies of about 10 proposals in 2018 and 2019.

NASA is going ahead with these plans even though the administration’s fiscal year 2018 budget blueprint included no funding for a Europa lander mission.

That mission, though, has as a strong advocate in Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA. [NASA]

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A Soyuz rocket carrying an SES satellite lifted off this morning. The Soyuz launched from French Guiana on schedule at 7:54 a.m. Eastern carrying the SES-15 satellite. The Boeing-built spacecraft, weighing 2,300 kilograms, carries a Ku-band payload with connectivity to gateways in Ka-band, as well a Wide Area Augmentation System hosted payload for the FAA to support GPS use in aviation. Spacecraft separation is scheduled for more than five hours after liftoff. [Spaceflight Now]

China Great Wall Industry Corporation has won a contract to build an Indonesian communications satellite. China Great Wall and Palapa Satelit Nusantara Sejahtera, an Indonesian joint venture, signed the contract Wednesday in Jakarta for the Palapa-N1 spacecraft. Palapa-N1 will carry a Ku-band payload and replace Palapa-D, whose orbital lifetime was limited when the Long March rocket that launched it in 2009 underperformed. The companies also announced a non-binding agreement for a Ka-band satellite, PSN-7. [SpaceNews]

Intelsat issued a new debt exchange offer with a revised deadline. The company said Thursday that it is making new offers to bondholders to exchange existing debt, with a new deadline of May 31. The company originally set a deadline of late April for bondholders to accept the original offer, extending it three times prior to this latest announcement. The debt exchange is key to Intelsat’s plans to merge with OneWeb. [Intelsat]

Nearly one third of the U.S. Senate has signed a letter calling on appropriators to fund NASA’s education office. The letter, released Wednesday, was signed by 32 senators, led by Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), and addressed to the chairman and ranking member of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA. The letter asks the subcommittee to restore funding for NASA’s education office. The administration’s fiscal year 2018 budget blueprint, released in March, offered no funding for the education office, which received $100 million in the fiscal year 2017 omnibus spending bill. The senators asked that funding be restored to the office “because its mission is critical to boosting the nation’s workforce competitiveness.” A detailed fiscal year 2018 budget request is expected to be released next week. [U.S. Senate]

Spaceflight has purchased an Electron launch from Rocket Lab for medium-inclination payloads. The companies announced the contract Wednesday, but did not disclose terms of the deal or indicate when the launch would take place. Spaceflight, which brokers launches of smallsats as secondary payloads, said it purchased the Electron launch for satellites seeking to fly to inclinations of 45 to 60 degrees, which are not well-served by existing rideshares that primarily go to sun-synchronous orbit. Rocket Lab is still on track to launch its first Electron in a 10-day window that opens Sunday. [SpaceNews]

The founder of the Mars Society is not a fan of NASA’s latest human exploration plans. Robert Zubrin criticized NASA’s plan for a cislunar outpost, called the Deep Space Gateway, as “NASA’s worst plan yet” in an op-ed and reiterated that criticism during a panel session this week. “There is not a plan” to go to Mars, said Zubrin at the forum. “This is random activity.” Zubrin has long advocated for concepts that would send humans to Mars as soon as possible. [Washington Post / National Review]

The head of a leading Russian space company is critical of SpaceX’s proposed circumlunar mission. In an interview, Vladimir Solntsev, general director of RSC Energia, said he doubted SpaceX would be able to send a Dragon spacecraft carrying two people around the moon and back in 2020, let alone SpaceX’s current plan to do so in 2018. “Nobody has yet even seen the designs. There’s no launch vehicle, no spacecraft,” he said of the proposed mission, announced in February but with few details disclosed. Solntsev said he expected NASA to exercise options for three seats on Soyuz spacecraft in 2019 because of commercial crew delays, and added Russia would likely revive efforts to sell Soyuz seats to space tourists once NASA astronauts start using Boeing and SpaceX vehicles. []

Russian officials believe it will be cheaper to develop a new heavy-lift rocket from scratch rather than try to revive the Energia vehicle. Igor Radugin, deputy general designed of RSC Energia, said a “super-heavy” rocket using current technologies would cost about 30 percent less than rebuilding the Energia, which first launched 30 years ago this week but was retired after only two launches. A new vehicle, though, may not be ready for flight until the mid-2030s. [TASS]

An artist is using crowdfunding to reissue a famous plaque flown on the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft. The plaque was designed in the early 1970s as a message to any extraterrestrial civilization that might find the spacecraft, with information about humanity and the Earth’s location in the galaxy. Duane King is seeking to raise $70,000 by mid-June to produce replicas: $399 for a limited-edition manually engraved copy, and $99 for a laser-engraved one. [collectSPACE]

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...