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Is NASA really going to send a probe to Europa? [w/updates]

NASA said Tuesday that it wants to plan a robotic mission to Jupiter’s watery moon Europa, where astronomers speculate there might be life. (1996 photo of Europa/AP Photo/NASA)
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What’s NASA really up to? Sometimes it’s hard to know for sure. For a number of years NASA has developed various programs and missions that did not survive the erosional forces of constricting budgets and strategic changes. The agency has a dilemma: It takes at least a decade to do anything significant in space, but our political cycle is faster than that. Thus there are these phantom programs that exist on paper, that look like real plans, but which may never become physical, tangible realities. As a reporter covering NASA programs, you want to add a stipulation somewhere in your story that says, in effect, “This may not actually happen.”

Even programs where the metal has already been cut can wind up in the trash heap. The Constellation Program of Bush 43 was a major effort to return astronauts to the moon, but it never felt 100 percent real, because the plan lacked any sense of political urgency or public buy-in. It felt vulnerable to shifting winds. And such a wind came along — the zephyr known as Barack Obama. Obama killed Constellation. That meant the demise of the Ares 1 rocket after it had already burned through billions of dollars.  And what were they going to do with that $500 million, brand-new mobile launcher at the Cape that was designed for the Ares 1? (Answer: They can probably re-purpose it for another rocket, but space hardware is so customized that it’s not like adjusting the height knob on a workout machine at the gym.)

Surviving from Constellation is the Orion capsule, but where will you go with it, if not back to the moon? NASA last year proposed the Asteroid Redirect Mission, which would involve astronauts in Orion visiting a captured asteroid in lunar orbit. In the new FY2015 budget request, the Obama administration wants to boost funding for the ARM, to $133 million in 2015, but you can expect political rancor on that front. The ARM is hardly a slam dunk, in part because they haven’t found a target rock. Republicans don’t like it because it has Obama’s imprimatur, and they took the rare step last year of trying to prevent NASA from spending any money on it. The ARM has no international partners. It is not essential to the hopes and dreams and bottom lines of the huge aerospace corporations (although a captured rock would give Orion and the SLS rocket a “destination” in the relatively near term other than points in space or interesting orbits around the moon). So the ARM lives, but it’s precisely the kind of program that a subsequent Congress or Republican administration would take delight in killing.

Which finally brings up the issue of a Europa mission. Seth Borenstein of the Associated Press wrote about the Europa proposal Tuesday. (Could be fish under the ice there!) There’s $15 million in the Obama budget request for a Europa mission (here’s my news article that touches on the NASA budget — it’s mostly about the United States and Russia being roommates in space). But a Europa mission would be a “Flagship” class mission, meaning $1 billion-plus in cost. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said a few months ago that the space agency couldn’t afford new Flagships in the near future (other than ones already underway). Other officials confirmed that: There’s no money in the tight NASA budget for Flagships right now. Any plausible mission to Europa is definitely Flagship-class, as I reported in December in the final installment of the Destination Unknown series.

Initial estimates for a Europa orbiter put the cost at $4.7 billion. That’s expensive even by flagship-mission standards. Getting a spacecraft into orbit around Europa is tricky, because it’s close to Jupiter and at the bottom of the planet’s deep gravity well. Jupiter also emits intense radiation, and the spacecraft’s instruments would need to be covered in costly lead shielding.
So engineers went to a Plan B. Rather than orbiting Europa, the spacecraft would go into an orbit around Jupiter, spending most of its time outside the planet’s radiation field, and then swoop in repeatedly, with 34 flybys of Europa and nine of the moon Ganymede.
At this point the Europa Clipper is just a “concept under study,” and it is not clear when or if it will graduate and become a real mission.

So, does NASA intend to do a Flagship-class Europa mission? What do we make of the $15 million in the budget request? Reporters on the NASA budget teleconference Tuesday pressed Bolden to clarify the issue. He didn’t. Finally, NASA chief financial officer Elizabeth Robinson said the Europa mission is in the “early pre-formulation stage” and said of the future scale of the mission, “We’re frankly just not sure at this point.”

One likely outcome is that Congress will see the $15 million request from the administration and raise it substantially. That was suggested to me by Rep. Adam Schiff , the Democrat who represents Pasadena (home base of NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory) and who is a big booster of the NASA planetary program.

But to answer the question posed in the headline of this blog item: I have no idea.

[Update: Early this afternoon I was emailed the following statement from NASA spokesman David Weaver, quoted in full:

“The Obama Administration has taken an important step in laying the groundwork for a mission to Europa with its FY 2015 budget proposal. NASA is in the early stages of mission formulation and we intend to use the funds proposed in next year’s budget — along with the money already approved by Congress — to help research the scope of a Europa mission. We also plan to get additional input from the science community on how best to execute a scientifically significant mission.”]

[Update II: Comments at a conference today by John Grunsfeld and Bolden, reported by Marcia Smith (@spcplcyonline) and Jeff Foust (@jeff_foust) on Twitter, suggest NASA would like to do the mission for $1 billion or less, which is “New Frontiers" class. More here from the Planetary Society’s Casey Dreier. More budget discussion at Space Policy Online, and Space Politics.]

[Update III: Eric Berger of the Houston  Chronicle has a good blog item arguing that the political support in the House for a Europa mission — specifically the enthusiastic support of John Culberson, a Republican from Texas who will likely succeed Frank Wolf as the chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA — means a Europa mission is likely to happen. “I want to make sure you and I are here to see those first tube worms and lobsters on Europa,” Culberson told the Chron. (Note that Schiff, on the other side of the aisle on the same subcommittee, is also a big supporter.) Berger points out that, even though the White House did not request money in ’13 and ’14 for a Europa mission, Congress appropriated it and even insisted that NASA proceed. Berger writes: “NASA only asked for $15 million in FY 2015 for the Europa mission. I’d bet on it getting closer to $100 million when Congress finishes. Clearly the NASA administration is not overly enthusiastic about the Europa mission. But Congress is.”

Finally, a scientist with NASA ties tells me the support in the president’s budget for a Europa mission and for a new space telescope, WFIRST, which would study dark energy, is an important step. There are many more gates along the way between conception and execution, but that’s always the case, the scientist says: “Building these major missions is a marathon, they both just made it over a big hill, but there are many more miles between here and launch.  Given the broad support for both of these missions in the scientific community and Congress on both sides of the aisle, I think that these missions are likely to go forward.”]