NASA May Cancel Europa Lander Mission As Space Agency Faces Budget Cuts
NASA wants to investigate the habitability of Jupiter's moon Europa, and sending probes to this icy world may reveal if it can indeed support life.
Among the planets and natural satellites in the Solar System, Europa is among the few worlds that scientists suspect having an environment that can support life. Missions that would conduct close proximity study of the moon may hold answers to questions of its habitability. Two missions to this world have so far been considered by the U.S. space agency.
Europa Clipper Mission
A mission to fly by the icy world dubbed the Europa Clipper is set for launch in 2020. The spacecraft would fly by Europa up to 45 times to image its surface at high resolution and gather data about the moon's composition and the structure of its icy shell and interior.
Europa Lander Mission
Another proposed Europa mission involves sending a lander to the moon that could determine if it harbors life. In a report submitted last February, the NASA-employed Science Definition Team proposed a mission that would involve drilling toward the moon's subterranean ocean to find signs of life.
The moon hosts a large global ocean protected by hard ice. The plan was to send a robotic probe similar to those on the surface of planet Mars to drill on the icy surface and sample the subsurface ocean of the Galilean moon. Analysis could provide information about the chemicals found in the waters or even indicate signs of life.
The mission could be launched by 2030, but the budget cut is putting an end to the Europa lander project.
President Donald Trump's 2018 federal budget blueprint, which was released on March 16, would axe the proposed mission to send a life-hunting lander on the surface of the ocean-harboring moon.
"To preserve the balance of NASA's science portfolio and maintain flexibility to conduct missions that were determined to be more important by the science community, the Budget provides no funding for a multi-billion-dollar mission to land on Europa," the document reads.
It does not mean the end for Europa studies, though, since the blueprint mentioned an allocated fund that would support the continued development of the Europa Clipper mission.
Despite the proposal to cut the space agency's budget, NASA's Planetary Science division, which is involved in studies of planets, satellites, and smaller bodies found in the Solar System, could receive a 20.1 percent increase in funding from the previous budget.
The proposed budget is also not yet final since members of the House and the Senate will still examine it, possibly make some changes, and send it back to be signed.
"Overall science funding is stable, although some missions in development will not go forward and others will see increases," said NASA acting administrator Robert Lightfoot in response to the proposed Fiscal Year 2018 NASA budget proposal.
"We remain committed to studying our home planet and the universe, but are reshaping our focus within the resources available to us — a budget not far from where we have been in recent years, and which enables our wide ranging science work on many fronts."