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NASA seeks proposals for Europa mission’s science instruments

Europa as seen on Spaceflight Insider

Europa may be the best place in the solar system to look for environments where life could exist. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ted Stryk

NASA recently issued an Announcement of Opportunity (AO) for proposals regarding  science instruments that could be flown aboard a future mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa. The selected instruments could potentially answer important questions about the icy moon and help guide the search for life beyond Earth.

This colorized surface image of Europa was compiled from data collected by NASA's Galileo spacecraft. The blue-white regions indicate relatively pure water ice. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute

This colorized surface image of Europa was compiled from data collected by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft. The blue-white regions indicate relatively pure water ice. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute

“The possibility of life on Europa is a motivating force for scientists and engineers around the world,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “This solicitation will select instruments which may provide a big leap in our search to answer the question: are we alone in the universe?”

NASA plans to select approximately 20 proposals in April 2015. The agency will then provide aproximately $25 million dollars to selectees for development of their instruments as part of a Phase A study. NASA will then conduct a detailed review of the selectees reports and select approximately eight instruments to be built for flight and science operations.

The AO calls for instruments that would gather data on a spacecraft that would either orbit or perform multiple flybys of Europa.  The instruments will be used to conduct sicentific investigations addressing goals for exploration of Europa outlined by the National Research Council’s (NRC) Planetary Decadal Survey. The Decadal Survey outlined five key science objectives for the exploration of Europa in order of priority:

  • – Characterize the extent of the ocean and its relation to the deeper interior
  • – Characterize the ice shell and any subsurface water, including their heterogeneity, and the nature of surface-ice-ocean exchange
  • – Determine global surface, compositions and chemistry, especially as related to habitability
  • – Understand the formation of surface features, including sites of recent or current activity, identify and characterize candidate sites for future detailed exploration Understand Europa’s space environment and interaction with the magnetosphere.
Cutaway diagram of Europa's interior. Image Credit: Michael Carroll

Cutaway diagram of Europa’s interior. Image Credit: Michael Carroll

NASA added a reconnaissance goal to the AO  for the  characterization of scientifically compelling sites and potential hazards for a potential future landed mission to Europa. Current data is insufficient to identify landing sites and to design a spacecraft capable of safely landing on the surface.

“Proposals must be responsive to one or more of the six objectives,” said Curt Niebur, Outer Planets Program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Plans could be adjusted to programmatic decisions made by NASA in the future.”

Science instruments for a Europa mission must be able to withstand a harsh radiation environment. The spacecraft must also meet strict planetary protection requirements that are designed to protect Europa’s possibly habitable ocean from the introduction of a viable Earth organism.

Previous scientific findings indicate the presence of a liquid water ocean beneath Europa’s icy crust. The ocean covers the moon entirely and could contain more liquid water the all of the Earth’s oceans combined. NASA’s Galileo mission, launched in 1989, was the only spacecraft to visit Europa multiple times, passing close by the moon fewer than a dozen times.

The NRC has recommended that NASA should try to reduce the scope and cost of a Europa mission.  NASA released a request for information in April for mission concepts that would cost less than $ 1 billion, excluding the launch vehicle. Recent studies by NASA have focused on mission concepts for either an orbiter or a multiple flyby mission.

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Artist’s concept of the frozen surface of Europa. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

 

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Jim Sharkey is a lab assistant, writer and general science enthusiast who grew up in Enid, Oklahoma, the hometown of Skylab and Shuttle astronaut Owen K. Garriott. As a young Star Trek fan he participated in the letter-writing campaign which resulted in the space shuttle prototype being named Enterprise. While his academic studies have ranged from psychology and archaeology to biology, he has never lost his passion for space exploration. Jim began blogging about science, science fiction and futurism in 2004. Jim resides in the San Francisco Bay area and has attended NASA Socials for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover landing and the NASA LADEE lunar orbiter launch.

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