On Thursday, NASA announced a significant discovery about Europa, the large icy moon of Jupiter: astronomers spotted evidence for geysers of water erupting from the moon’s southern polar regions. The discovery may be further proof that the moon has a subsurface ocean of liquid water that could, potentially, harbor life. Moreover, it comes a day after another team of scientists reported the discovery of “clay-like” minerals on Europa’s surface, which could provide the organic building blocks needed for life.
The Planetary Society wasted no time in using the discoveries to lobby for funding for a Europa mission. “We have to explore Europa,” Bill Nye, CEO of the organization, said in a press release Thursday. “It will take a small adjustment to the Planetary Science budget to mount a mission that will have us solving problems that have never been solved before; there will be innovations and economic benefits.”
A Europa orbiter mission, or the “Europa Clipper” concept that would orbit Jupiter but make multiple close flybys of Jupiter, has been a high priority for planetary scientists, but something NASA has not committed to, citing limited budgets. For fiscal year 2013, Congress did set aside $75 million of NASA’s planetary budget for Europa mission studies, and in its FY2014 appropriations bill, the House earmarked an additional $80 million for Europa mission studies, but the total cost of such a mission is likely on the order of $2 billion.
The Planetary Society release does include a statement of support from the biggest Congressional supporter for a Europa mission. “This exciting revelation further solidifies the need for the Flagship Class mission to Europa that the scientific community has been clamoring for, the Planetary Science Decadal Survey has endorsed, and we in Congress have mandated by law,” said Rep. John Culberson (R-TX). “I look forward to working with my colleagues in Congress to ensure that a Europa mission has the full support of the federal government.”