The good news for planetary scientists in NASA’s fiscal year 2015 budget proposal is that the agency is seeking funding for the first time for “pre-formulation” work on a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, where some scientists speculate life could exist in oceans beneath the moon’s icy surface. The uncertain—and potentially bad—news for those scientists, though, is that proposed mission may not be nearly as big, and as scientifically compelling, as they would like.
The budget request includes only $15 million for the Europa mission planning, which is much smaller than the $80 million Congress earmarked for such work in the final FY14 spending bill; Congress also provided $75 million for Europa mission work in its FY13 spending bill. In both FY13 and FY14, though, NASA had not requested any funding for a Europa mission.
At the FY15 budget briefing Tuesday, NASA CFO Beth Robinson didn’t provide details about NASA would spend that $15 million, or how much the overall Europa mission itself would cost. “We are in that early pre-formulation state, so I know people have asked about the total size, and we’re frankly just not sure at this point,” she said. “We’re going to be going to the science community for different concepts to meet the central scientific goals that were laid out in the decadal [survey].” She did say she anticipated a launch of such a mission in the mid-2020s.
In the planetary science decadal survey, scientists identified a Europa orbiter mission as its second highest large, or flagship, mission priority, behind a Mars rover to cache samples for later return to Earth. However, the study estimated the cost of such a mission at $4.7 billion, which the study’s leaders said was too expensive, and recommended that the mission be descoped to lower its cost.
One approach to descoping that Europa orbiter mission is a concept called Europa Clipper. Instead of going into orbit around Europa, the spacecraft would go into orbit around Jupiter and make multiple flybys of Europa. Most recent cost estimates have pegged the mission at around $2.1 billion, which would keep it a flagship-class mission, albeit far less expensive that the orbiter concept in the decadal.
Comments a day after the budget rollout by NASA leadership, though, indicated that the agency is at least planning to look at Europa mission concepts that are much less expensive that even those lower-cost proposals. “We have committed to flying a mission to Europa in the decade of the 2020s,” NASA administrator Charles Bolden said during a question-and-answer session following a speech at the Goddard Memorial Symposium Wednesday in Greenbelt, Maryland. “What I’ve asked people to do is I want the science community to come together with industry, academia, and our international partners, and my desire, to be honest, would be to target a Europa mission that we could fly for a billion dollars or less.”
In a later panel at the conference, NASA associate administrator for science John Grunsfeld confirmed NASA’s interest in a relatively low-cost Europa mission, with plans to issue a request for information (RFI) for such mission concepts soon. “One of the things we’re going to do post haste is to put out an RFI for ideas, as Administrator Bolden said, for if we were to do a Europa mission at the New Frontiers category—about a billion dollars—what would you like to see, what what you do,” he said. “That’s part of forumlating the cost bogey for a Europa mission.” That request for information would be part of activities funded in FY14, and Grunsfeld added that some of the $80 million in FY14 funds earmarked for Europa would likely carry over into FY15 since it can’t be all be spend before the fiscal year ends.
The idea of a billion-dollar Europa mission has raised some eyebrows in the scientific community, who wonder if such a mission is even feasible given the technical challenges of flying to Europa and operating there in Jupiter’s strong radiation environment. There’s also the question of just how useful such a mission would be scientifically, if the lower cost reduces the payload of instruments it can carry.
Bolden, in his comments at the conference Wednesday, left open the possibility that a billion-dollar Europa mission might not be feasible. “That may or may not be possible,” he said, “because the one thing we don’t want to do is fly a mission of a certain amount of money that has no valuable scientific return.”
If it turns out that a scientifically usable and technically feasible Europa mission requires a budget of closer to $2 billion, like the Europa Clipper concept, with a launch in around 2025—11 years from now—that works out to an average cost of about $500,000 per day (if you’re wondering about the title of this post.)