Planetary Sciences News

NASA Selects Science Instruments for Europa Mission

The instruments chosen for a mission to Jupiter's moon Europa include cameras, spectrometers, magnetometers, and an ice-penetrating radar.

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With NASA’s selection of nine science instruments to fly on a mission to study Jupiter’s moon Europa, the agency has taken a “big step forward in our quest to learn more about our solar system and the search for life beyond Earth,” according to John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

NASA scientists John Grunsfeld, Jim Green, and Curt Niebur (left to right) speak at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D. C., on a 26 May panel about instruments selected to investigate Jupiter's moon Europa. In July 2014, NASA officials requested proposals for instruments to fly aboard a spacecraft conducting approximately 45 flybys of Europa over roughly a 3-year period. Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani
NASA scientists John Grunsfeld, Jim Green, and Curt Niebur (left to right) speak at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D. C., on a 26 May panel about instruments selected to investigate Jupiter’s moon Europa. In July 2014, NASA officials requested proposals for instruments to fly aboard a spacecraft conducting approximately 45 flybys of Europa over a roughly 3-year period. Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

The instrumentation payload, which the agency announced on 26 May, includes a suite of tools that NASA officials say could vastly increase the understanding of Europa, from its atmosphere to its subsurface. Among the instruments to be developed for the mission are cameras, spectrometers, magnetometers, and an ice-penetrating radar to investigate the moon and its potential for habitability.

“The mission design is still being studied, but we wanted to get a head start on the instruments, as they’re often the ‘long poles’ in the development of something as complex as a mission to Europa,” Grunsfeld said. He added that the moon “has tantalized us with its enigmatic icy surface and evidence of a vast ocean.”

Congressional Support for Europa Mission

Rep. John Culberson (R-Texax), chair of the House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS), which has jurisdiction over NASA, told Eos that he is pleased with the agency’s announcement. “Europa represents one of our best opportunities to find life beyond Earth, and I’m pleased NASA is taking the critical first steps to get us there,” he said. On 20 May, the appropriations committee approved the fiscal year (FY) 2016 CJS bill, which includes $140 million for a Europa mission and calls for a launch no later than 2022. This is more than the administration’s budget request of $30 million in FY 2016 for NASA to formulate a mission to Europa that would spend about 3 years exploring the Jovian system and include 45 flybys of Europa.

Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, said that now that the instruments have been selected, the agency is going to “move the whole activity into formulation and get really serious about all aspects of the mission,” which could be launched sometime in the 2020s for a cost of about $2 billion, excluding the launch vehicle.

Europa is “one of those critical areas where we believe the environment is just perfect for the potential development of life. This mission will be that step that helps us understand the environment and hopefully gives us an indication how habitable the environment could be,” Green said.

Instruments Would Explore Many Aspects of the Moon

Among the nine new instruments selected are the Plasma Instrument for Magnetic Sounding, to determine Europa’s ice shell thickness, ocean depth, and salinity; the Europa Imaging system, which includes wide and narrow cameras to map most of Europa at 50-meter resolution; the Radar for Europa Assessment and Sounding: Ocean to Near-surface ice-penetrating radar, to study the moon’s icy crust; and the Surface Dust Mass Analyzer, intended to measure small particles ejected from Europa. The nine instruments selected were among 33 researcher-submitted proposals that the agency reviewed. In addition, NASA announced that the Space Environment and Composition Investigation near the Europan Surface instrument will undergo further technology development.

Curt Niebur, NASA Europa program scientist, said, “All of these instruments are designed to increase our rather limited understanding of Europa, and they are doing that by helping us probe the big question, which is: Is Europa habitable?”

—Randy Showstack, Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2015), NASA selects science instruments for Europa mission, Eos, 96, doi:10/1029.2015EO030999. Published on 3 June 2015.