After many years of the Planetary Society members and other scientists sending tens of thousands of letters to their congressional representatives petitioning Congress for a mission to Europa, one of Jupiter’s Moons, NASA formally ‘greenlit the Europa Clipper mission in 2015’.
The moons around Jupiter have been of interest to Planetary Society members and NASA scientists for a very long time. Europa is of particular interest as scientists consider that it has an ocean of water underneath an icy surface.
Europa is considered a science-critical target because it might be the best place to look for environments where life could exist. Other Moons of crucial significance include lo, which has the most volcanically active body in the solar system, Ganymede, the largest satellite in our solar system, and Callisto, the most heavily cratered object in our solar system.
Considered as a potential place for space settlement, ‘The United Nations Outer Space Treaty, ratified in 1967, states that no country may take claim to space or celestial bodies like Europa’.
A very expensive space mission
NASA hopes to launch its Europa Clipper spacecraft (which cost 4.25 billion to build) on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket to explore Europa in October 2024.
The value of the Europa Clipper launch contract for SpaceX is $178 million. It is no light undertaking being responsible for a payload of $4.25 billion hardware, which includes solar panels spanning 72 feet (22 meters). It is packed ‘with a wide range of science instruments to scan Europa from above and directly sample the moon’s tenuous atmosphere.’
The mission is expected to arrive in 2030. Europa is 390.4 million miles (628.3 million kilometers) from the Earth, which is 11.5 times the distance that Mars is from Earth. It takes unmanned spacecraft Missions anywhere between 128 to 333 days to reach Mars.
Europa Clipper will help us understand the prospects for life on other ocean worlds in our solar system and beyond.
Mike Wall writing for space.com states, ‘If all goes according to plan, Clipper will lift off in October 2024 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida and arrive in orbit around Jupiter in April 2030. The probe will then study Europa in-depth during nearly 50 close flybys of the moon over the course of about four Earth years, mission team members have said.’
Europa Clipper works by orbiting Jupiter instead of Europa directly. The spacecraft will spend most of its time outside the planet’s intense radiation field. It will have to ‘periodically dive through Jupiter’s radiation, fly by Europa for data collection, and then flee the scene. This strategy will allow Europa Clipper to study the moon for years rather than days or months.
Europa Clipper spacecraft mission objectives
The $4.25 billion mission orbiting Jupiter and observing Europa sets out to achieve the following objectives
- Map Europa’s ice
- Determine the depth and salinity of its ocean.
- Search for hot spots where the ocean may be seeping up through the ice shell.
- Determine the composition of the surface.
- Scan any plumes spouting water into space.
- Directly sample Europa’s atmosphere (including possible ocean water and surface particles shot into space by Jupiter’s radiation).
- Scout locations where future space missions might land.
Petitioning Congress sets space agenda
Many people reading this might be wondering if this is a good use of taxpayer money? As much as 0.5% of the United States budget is spent on NASA each year, in 2019 NASA received 22.6 billion in government funding.
The Europa Clipper spacecraft mission got the go-ahead because of many direct petitioning to Congress. Members of the Planetary Society and other scientists think that searching for other planets that could support life is of critical importance. NASA is also involved in many different projects, such as planetary defense from meteors which may need more petitioning to be prioritized.
Feature image credit: Europa Clipper Spacecraft Artists Concept by NASA