Spaceflight Insider

Europa or bust: possible mission to icy moon in FY 2015 Budget Proposal

Europa peeking out from Jupiter's limb, as seen by Voyager 2 on July 3, 1979. Photo Credit: NASA / JPL / Daniel Macháček

For scientists and space enthusiasts who have been advocating a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, there was some good news this week from NASA. A mission to Europa has been officially included in the NASA 2015 Budget request. The inclusion is a reason for cautious optimism; while naming it as a target for a future robotic mission in the 2020s, NASA also wants to do that mission as cheaply as possible. Given the current economic climate, that may not be surprising, but what would reduced cost mean in terms of science?

Europa is one of the most fascinating worlds in the outer solar system. Europa has a global subsurface ocean, which is thought to share many characteristics with our own oceans (although it has been estimated Europa’s ocean is larger than Earth’s oceans combined). A more recent discovery of possible water plumes erupting from the surface is similar to Saturn’s moon Enceladus. These and other findings are the main reason Europa has become a primary focus for the search for extraterrestrial life.

Earlier Europa mission concepts called for an orbiter as well as a possible lander. While such a mission would be exciting and challenging – it would also be very expensive Estimates place the cost of such a mission at about $4.7 billion. An even more ambitious idea for farther in the future would be to send a lander which could drill through the surface ice layer to the water below.

Illustration of the Europa Clipper mission concept. Image Credit: NASA / JPL / Michael Carroll

Illustration of the Europa Clipper mission concept. Image Credit: NASA / JPL / Michael Carroll

But what could we realistically do now to explore Europa? The Europa Clipper mission concept has gained a lot of support and points toward a template as to what might be possible. Estimated at $2.1 billion, the spacecraft would fly past Europa about 50 times over a few years. It would be able to map the surface and also obtain data regarding the nature of the ocean below. NASA’s Juno spacecraft is currently en route to Jupiter, but it will focus primarily on studying the gas giant planet itself.

It takes a long time to get to Jupiter, about six years, so any mission to Europa should be able to do as much scientific study of the moon as possible, especially because of the possible astrobiological implications.

A Europa Clipper-type mission would go a long way towards increasing our understanding of the ocean environment on Europa, but not so much in terms of looking for direct evidence of life itself unless the probe could be flown directly through the water vapor plumes, just as Cassini has done at Enceladus (and so far has found water vapor, ice crystals and complex organic molecules). The mission would have to be modified a bit to accomplish this, but it can be done. It will also require a better understanding of the plumes, which appear to happen sporadically.

It would benefit the odds of a Europa mission being a success if more funds could be allocated for it (the final amount is still yet to be determined). This would also ensure more science could be accomplished. Large outer solar system missions such as this are less frequently attempted as opposed to missions to Mars or other inner solar system planets.

Europa is considered to be one of the best places to look for possible alien life that we know of. Scientists have worked for some time to have just such a mission take place. With this past week’s announcement it appears that the likelihood of such an expedition is likely to take place.


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Paul Scott Anderson has had a passion for space exploration that began when he was a child when he watched Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos.” While in school he was known for his passion for space exploration and astronomy. Then, in 2005 he began to detail his passion for the skies in his own online journal. While interested in all aspects of space exploration, his primary passion is planetary science. In 2011, he started writing on a freelance basis, and currently writes for He has also done supplementary writing for the well-known iOS app Exoplanet.

Reader Comments

This would be an awesome mission! Of course, they would need to include advanced “sniffer” instruments to detect biological organisms in several different ways as well as other instruments capable of probing the watery depths of Europa from above. And one benefit of not orbiting Europa would be that the mission could survey the other Galilean satellites as well.

The big problem is money! Such great missions of exploration do not come cheap. Unfortunately, another project will almost certainly gobble up what little NASA has available. The SLS program is hungry for increased funding and it seems almost a certainty that if more money becomes available to NASA, SLS will get it. Worse yet, if money does not become available, other programs will be shut down to provide SLS more funding.

Ironically, it seems increasingly likely that the only way a Europa mission is to get off the ground would be if SLS never does (that is to say when Congress decides to shut down the SLS program and allow freed up SLS funding to be used for a Europa mission and other projects). We simply can’t afford to have our cake and eat it to. Either you spend NASA money to build a rocket or fly exploration missions – not both.

Having said that, you could get some real nice missions of exploration to fly with a Falcon Heavy, for a whole lot less public money.

Curtis, agree on about 80 percent of what you’ve said, especially given the current economic environment we’re in.

Which flights of the Falcon Heavy are you basing your cost analysis on? Given it hasn’t flown & has 27 engines in the first stage alone? I’d advise not making predictions about things which haven’t happened – much less how much it will cost. This isn’t spite – it’s history. The N-1 had 30 engines in its first stage & was a total failure. Maybe SpaceX can ensure FH doesn’t run into similar problems & maybe they can’t. We should allow SpaceX to actually launch one of the rockets first before making blanket statements regarding their cost – don’t you think?

Hi Jason,

On SpaceX’s website they list the cost of a Falcon Heavy as US$77 million (down from a posted US$ 95 million last year). Elon Musk has given his word that the cost will not increase. As far as flying goes, the components of the Falcon Heavy are the same as the Falcon 9 (same engines, same tankage, same airframe, etc.). That being the case you can make a case for good component testing already. A Falcon Heavy is simply three Falcon 9 cores strapped together. Later Falcon Heavies will utilize cross=feed technology and that will require further testing, but not in an revolutionary manner – more in an evolutionary one.

The only similarity of the Falcon Heavy to the ill-fated N-1, is the number of engines. There were many problems with the N-1, including the engines. But perhaps the biggest problem was the computer control of the vehicle – which was basically non-existent by modern standards. The Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy benefit from advanced computer control software that monitors the engines and keeps things going when individual engines have problems. In fact, far from being a problem, the multiple engines of the Falcon are a benefit as they provide engine-out capability that other rockets like Delta and Atlas do not have.

Having said all the above, we can only base our confidence on what has been demonstrated and what we have seen. We have seen the components work well. We will see a launch later this year. I suppose all the confidence could go up in smoke, but it could be vindicated as well. Fortunately, SpaceX does not play fast and lose and they do not seem to have been bitten by the “Go Fever” bug.

The nicest part of this is that no taxpayer money will have been spent finding out if Falcon Heavy works as advertised. As far as I am concerned having SpaceX do the testing on their own dime makes the risk more than worth it. And having this done nearly a decade before SLS and at multiple tens of billions less than SLS will cost the taxpayer is a meaty reward for NASA and the US taxpayer.

Hi Curtis,
What someone says “will” happen isn’t a declaration of fact. The components of FH are like those of DIVH except FH has 9 times the engines & therefore 9 times the things that can go wrong.

We’ve seen F9 work well but not in this configuration. Patience. SpaceX may prove FH is all they say it’ll be. Until it flies however? What you did, stating possible future costs as if they’re already in the history books, is very inappropriate. Doing so on “the word” of the company’s CEO? Is frightening. What Musk says will or won’t happen? Should only serve as a suggestion – not as prophecy.

As to your comment the taxpayer didn’t pay for it? It’s my understanding F9 was developed using COTS funds. Musk has stated 90% of development costs for F9/Dragon came from such (I believe). If so? Your statement taxpayers didn’t pick up the tab appears inaccurate. Having said that, I can’t remember if it was both F9 & Dragon, just F9 or just Dragon. I can tell you this, SpaceX doesn’t like to talk cost (not my words, Gwynne Shotwell’s during a KSC press conference). Given that, I’m unsure about what the taxpayer actually funded in terms of F9 and so should you.

Nearly a decade before SLS? SLS is set to fly in 2017 (3 years) – FH’s first flight has slipped to 2015 (it was supposed to launch at the end of 2012). Meaning? If both dates hold – 2 years will separate them – not a “decade.” While I appreciate your devotion to SpaceX – you’re making factually inaccurate statements. Anyone can “Google” the actual dates before making claims. It lends the appearance you’re attempting to elevate one – while smearing the other with those numbers. I’ve seen cost estimates for FH as low as $77M and as high as $135M. Why did you focus on the low number but ignore the high? Why didn’t you mention how many FH launches it would take to compete with SLS? You imply these two vehicles are on par with one another. Given it’d take about 6 times the amount of FH launches to match SLS? You’re comparing apples to oranges.

I’m old enough to remember predictions shuttle would fly more than once a month. I also remember the claims of Roton, Kistler & many others – including SpaceX who repeatedly issued manifests with 10 launches a year. They’ve averaged about 2 launches or so a year. In short? SpaceX’s predictions have proven at times wrong & taking one man’s word as gospel is unwise. A space program can’t be based on a Cult of Personality – it must be based on facts & cold, hard numbers.

While I understand SpaceX’s impressive accomplishments are worthy of both excitement and praise? The cult-like belief they can do no wrong? Scares me. It’s what led to Apollo 1, to Challenger and Columbia. There’s a lot to be said for caution, rational unbiased thought & objectivity.
Sincerely, Jason Rhian – Editor, The SpaceFlight Group

Hi Jason,

Of course you have caught me red-handed being an incurable optimist. Guilty as charged! Even though SpaceX may not have “Go fever” it is clear that I do. I believe that we have a bright future and that we are on the edge of exciting times for human spaceflight. But I also believe that this can only happen when the cost of spaceflight goes down dramatically, by a factor of ten, a hundred, or a thousand. This is why I am excited by what SpaceX is doing, and conversely why I am not excited by the SLS. I honestly believe that SLS is a great roadblock to the future of human spaceflight and that the path SpaceX is on is the correct one.

You are correct when you say a promise is not a fact, but it is a contract. When I share that SpaceX posts a price for their product, it is of course true that such a posting might not be true. But we have no reason to believe that SpaceX would advertise one price and then switch to a higher one when the real deal was struck to purchase their services. If that were the case, why would SpaceX bother to publish prices publicly. Other launch service providers do not publish their prices. It is only fair and proper to take SpaceX at their word until they establish that they are unworthy of being trusted to do so. If SpaceX says a Falcon Heavy launch costs US$ 70 million that they deserve to be given the benefit of the doubt. So far they have done nothing to suggest they do not mean what they say.

As far as timing goes, SpaceX lists ten launches on their 2014 manifest and the Falcon Heavy is listed as the third on the list. This suggests a 2014 launch date is pretty solid. I suggest Spring or Summer 2014. You say that SpaceX manifests are not met in years past and you are correct that they are more optimistic than what turns out to be the case. But they are not widely off the mark. It would be completely reasonable that they make it to the third launch on the manifest given that they are about to launch the second one next week.

I apologize for not going with the official December 2017 launch date for SLS, but funding issues suggest that this date is unrealistic. The Booze-Allen report suggests that as the SLS moves from paper over to fabrication that significant cost issues will be faced that will require increased funding to maintain schedule. I think it likely that no such additional funding will be forthcoming. This is why I suggest a ten year difference in launch dates. I realize you disagree with this, but it is hard to argue against the fiscal reality here.

As far as SLS to Falcon Heavy comparisons, SLS is designed to launch 150,000 pounds to LEO while Falcon Heavy is designed to launch 115,000 pounds to LEO. While SLS clearly is designed to have more launch capability, Falcon Heavy has nearly 70% the launch capability of SLS. You numbers are not correct when you suggest SLS has six times the launch capability of a Falcon Heavy. If not apples to oranges, perhaps it is more like a Macintosh apple to a golden delicious.

I want to thank you for keeping me honest. It is true that my enthusiasm sometimes gets in the way of cold hard facts. But when I go beyond your sensibilities it does not mean that I am trying to pick a fight or insult. I just like to share my dream.

Hi Curtis,
I’ve seen 2014 & 2015 FH launch dates. The place I’ve seen 2014 – is the SpaceX launch manifest – the same one which has proven inaccurate before. Given SpaceX launches tend to be delayed, coupled with the complexity of the FH? It’s more likely to launch in 2015. You assume the best for FH & worse for SLS. If you’re going to give SpaceX the benefit of the doubt – you should do the same for SLS & you shouldn’t have someone who bases his statements off of record adjust those estimates to be based on opinion.

My numbers come from within the industry. They’ve yet to be proven accurate or inaccurate. Maybe they’ll be wrong – but acting as if they already have been – is very disappointing. The numbers for either booster will be proven when they fly. Not before. I’ve taken pains to note neither rocket has confirmed the estimates placed on them. Rather than deem those numbers wrong out of hand – you should wait for actual proof of your beliefs before correcting someone.

While the 70 metric ton version of SLS is supposed to grant the ability to launch 154,323 lbs to orbit, the 130 metric ton version should increase that to 286,600 lbs. Best case for FH in that case? SLS more than doubles what FH is supposed to deliver to orbit.

You select facts validating your claims & ignore others that don’t. As I suggested earlier, FH may be everything as advertised however, it has yet to confirm those predictions.

May I ask what you do? Are you within the space industry?

Sincerely, Jason Rhian – Editor, The SpaceFlight Group

Mission planners should include a lander similar to the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft.
Budget constraints or not, to go all that way and not attempt to drop a lander makes no sense. What’s the cost of a follow-up mission to do precisely that?

Unfortunately, Europa has no significant atmosphere like Titan. This means that any lander would have to carry it’s own descent engines and fuel. Of course, all this adds into the mass of the entire spacecraft vehicle that must be launched toward Jupiter and captured into Jupiter orbit.

Such a lander would be awesome, but also expensive. And cost is the real killer here. It could be that ESA could contribute a lander to the mission (like they did the Titan probe for Casinni) and that could save NASA enough money to make it work, but ESA has had no success with lander spacecraft thus far (they are due to set a lander down on a comet this year, but we will have to wait and see how that turns out).

It could work out well to get SpaceX involved. Their Dragon spacecraft could be modified to land on Europa and launched on a Falcon Heavy. Some have suggested a Red Dragon could land on Mars in 2022 and do a sample return mission. The Falcon Heavy can send almost 30,000 pounds to Mars. An Atlas 5 sent the 8,000 pound Juno spacecraft to Jupiter, and the Falcon Heavy can lift almost double the Atlas 5. The Dragon only weighs 13,000 pounds – although that includes a hefty heat shield that would not be needed and more importantly descent engines and landing legs that could be quite useful. The unneeded and weighty heat shield could be replaced by a 2,000 pound Curiosity style rover.

The kicker here again is the cost. US$ 77 million for the Falcon Heavy and another $30 million for a Dragon gives a mission to Europa a possibly much, much lower price tag. Perhaps as much as a factor of ten difference in cost to the US taxpayer. Instead of over US$2 Billion mission, a Falcon Heavy/Dragon to Europa could cost less than $US 200 Million.

You imply SpaceX is the only salvation & make it appear as though things which have yet to take place are already in the history books. Don’t just post the best-sounding estimates. You mention the low ($77M) estimate – but fail to mention that some estimates have FH at $135M. Given Falcon Heavy has yet to fly – how can you say what it will or won’t do in terms of a Mars mission? Your attempt at comparing the much smaller Atlas V to a vehicle which might have the capabilities of a Delta IV Heavy is inaccurate at best. If you want to compare equal rockets such as an FH with a DIVH? Fine – but what you’ve tried to pass off as a “comparison” is questionable.

How many times has a FH flown to give it such a powerful personal endorsement from you? What does it say that you have so much faith in (at least until next year at earliest) an as yet unproven rocket as opposed to those with a proven record of success? Many would agree that experience & performance matter – not press releases & statements. Until FH flies your arguments are based on paper.

Last, a Dragon on a Europa mission? Why? It seems if it doesn’t directly relate to SpaceX – it doesn’t fit into your view of space.

Jason Rhian – Editor, The SpaceFlight Group


I think I may not have been clear enough in why I compared a Falcon Heavy to an Atlas 5. I chose to do this simply because the Atlas 5 is the rocket that was used to send a spacecraft (Juno) to Jupiter. This article is about sending spacecraft to Jupiter so that is why I used that example. My suspicion is that a Falcon Heavy will cost less than an Atlas 5, although that is hard to prove given that ULA does not publish the price of it’s Atlas 5.

As far as development costs for the Falcon Heavy goes – none of that is being paid for by taxpayer dollars. Yes, there was taxpayer dollars involved in the development of the Falcon 9 and Dragon. As part of the COTS program NASA provided SpaceX US$396 Million to develop the Falcon 9 launcher and the Dragon spacecraft. It has also been suggested that Musk himself put most of his then 500 million dollar savings into the project (but I was not able to find factual data on this). It must be stressed however that this was both a good investment and a bargain of unprecedented value for the American taxpayer. NASA estimated that the cost to develop the Falcon 9 and Dragon using a traditional cost-plus contract approach initially at $3.6 billion. SpaceX saved the American taxpayer 90% the value of what it would have cost NASA to develop an equivalent system. By the way, this is all a matter of public record, no exaggeration here as far as I can tell.

It’s false regardless of intent. Similarly you shouldn’t try to compare a Delta IV Heavy to a Falcon 9 – because it’s a straw man argument. You try to “win” by comparing FH with a smaller launch vehicle (although Atlas has flown as opposed to FH). Don’t do that.

Given FH is a derivative of F9? Your statement none of it was developed using taxpayer funds – is inaccurate. Elon Musk has been cited reporting to Congress 90 percent of F9 development cost – came from U.S. taxpayer funds. Thus, your numbers are likely incorrect. Perhaps that’s why you couldn’t find that data.

Not arguing F9 was produced affordably & performs admirably. The real problem I have with your posts is twofold. SpaceX supporters bristle if every single last “good” thing isn’t mention & attempt to silence or ignore the bad points. The second is I’m told to take SpaceX issued press releases & tweets at their word – before anything has taken to the sky. If you go back through this thread, you’ll see there were more than a few statements you’ve made that have been misleading & you never admit to it when corrected. You even went so far as to suggest taking Musk at his word was acceptable – it’ not. It’s not that there aren’t any exaggerations that you can “tell” – it’s that there are numerous exaggerations you don’t admit. Off the top of my head?

1. You compare a FH to an Atlas V due to the fact Atlas is the primary launch vehicle used for Mars missions to date. That’s not how comparisons are made – they are
made on comparisons of capability.
2. You state the low estimates which make SpaceX look good but ignore the ones which make them look bad. You did the inverse for SLS. That’s a double standard.
3. You’ve repeatedly attempt to pass the idea “your” company can be taken at its word despite the fact many of its original predictions have been incorrect.
4. You intentionally misstated the current SLS launch date & posted the low capability numbers. Rather than admit you were wrong you suggest the incorrect numbers
you posted were based off your beliefs & therefore valid.
5. You failed to mention FH is already 2 years late from its original launch date. You then make up a fictitious “gap” in an attempt to smear SLS. Both SLS & FH
will rise or fall on their own merits or failings – not on intentional misrepresentations of fact.

No exaggerations? Sorry Curtis but a quick review proves the opposite. While I admire your enthusiasm, I’m saddened by your lack of objectivity & appalled at your willingness to correct others by using falsehoods. One can’t have a real debate when one side uses prophecy & fiction in lieu of fact.


I really want to respond positively, but I cannot. None of your 5 reasons why you would want to dismiss my views are sound reasons to do so. You may not agree with me on this, but that is where it stands.

Consider this:

If I were to say SLS will launch a billion lbs to orbit tomorrow morning & since this is how I see things it must be true – would you be offended? While that’s an exaggerated example, perhaps now you understand my point. You increased the gap between the SLS & FH launch dates – by 7 years (3 years not 10 separate them) and then defended doing so.

People tend to discount folks who spread factually inaccurate information. It’s not that I disagree with the accurate statements you’ve made – it’s the false ones I have issue with.

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