Europa. A visit to Jupiter's moon is high on NASA's priority list.

Pluto, Moon, Europa Missions Top To-Do List

A panel of U.S. space scientists today recommended what they called "an aggressive yet rational strategy" to explore the solar system through the next decade, and put a mission to the Kuiper Belt and Pluto and a flight to Jupiter's moon Europa at the top of the to-do list. The White House refused to fund those missions in its 2003 budget request due to cost worries, but the study's strong backing could revive both efforts, say researchers.

The National Academy of Sciences report, "New Frontiers in the Solar System," took more than a year to complete and include input from all sectors of the planetary science community. It marked the first time that planetary missions have been ranked so comprehensively. The study was done at the behest of NASA and was chaired by astronomer Michael Belton, president of Belton Space Exploration Initiatives in Tucson, Arizona. "This wasn't a backroom potboiler," says Mark Sykes, a University of Arizona astronomer who coordinated community input to the panel.

The panel recommended that the first of a class of proposed large-scale missions--$650 million or more--be filled by a flight to Europa, a Jovian moon which conceals an ocean--and possibly life--under its layer of ice. Among the surprises in the 417-page study was the high priority placed on a mission to examine ancient rocks in the Aitkin Basin near the moon's south pole, and the low priority assigned a comet surface sample return flight proposal long in the limelight. In a press briefing, Belton explained that the lunar mission would offer technology benefits that could be applied to future missions to bring samples back from Mars and eventually Venus.

NASA needs $122 million in 2003 to keep the current mission to visit Pluto and the Kuiper Belt on track for a 2006 launch; the Administration requested no money in 2002 or 2003, but Congress granted $30 million for this year. The report suggests shifting emphasis to the Kuiper Belt rather than Pluto, but Belton said the current planning could still meet the science objectives. Now it is up to NASA, the White House, and Congress to decide whether the science laid out in the report is worth the money.

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The report, to be posted on the NAS home page