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An artist's conception of NASA's Europa Clipper mission.

An artist's conception of NASA's Europa Clipper mission.


Planetary scientists welcome NASA call for Europa concepts

Hunter Waite has waited years for the chance to use his planetary science engineering chops on a mission to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa. Now, the director of the space and engineering program at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, may finally get that chance.

Last week, setting its sights firmly on the outer reaches of our solar system, NASA invited scientists to submit designs for instruments that could ride to Europa on the agency’s proposed Clipper mission. NASA ultimately plans to pick 15 to 20 proposals to receive about $1 million each for further development—making the Clipper competition one of the largest of its kind in 25 years.

But Clipper, which NASA hopes to launch in the 2020s, is still a long way from securing the estimated $2 billion to $3 billion it will need to get off the ground.

Still, NASA’s move has sparked excitement among researchers such as Waite, who has spent half of his adult life on projects associated with the jovian moon. “Most people in the community think we’re way overdue for doing this,” he says. “It has been high on [researchers’] recommendation list for many years. It’s time.”

An opportunity like this comes once, maybe twice, in a planetary scientist’s lifetime, says Curt Niebur, a NASA program scientist assigned to the Clipper mission. “The last announcement of this scale was for the Cassini spacecraft in 1989,” he notes. Niebur expects the project to attract dozens of applicants.

Coincidentally, Waite took part in the Cassini mission. A mass spectrometry instrument he helped design was selected to ride on the spacecraft and has been collecting data on Saturn’s moon Enceladus for several years. Now, Waite is interested in applying mass spectrometry to determine Europa’s surface composition, data that could clarify how the moon’s icy surface interacts with the liquid oceans below.

Scientists have until 17 October to submit their instrument designs to NASA for consideration. An outside peer-review committee will then evaluate the proposals. The 15 to 20 winners will receive $1.25 million and will have 7 months to mature their instruments’ design. In late 2015, another peer-review team will reevaluate the designs, and NASA will select approximately eight finalists for further work.

In its request for proposals, NASA says the science objectives for the Clipper mission include:

  • Characterizing the extent of the moon’s ocean and its relation to the deeper interior

  • Characterizing the ice shell and any subsurface water, and the nature of surface-ice-ocean exchange

  • Determining global surface, composition, and chemistry, especially as related to habitability

  • Understanding the formation of surface features, including sites of recent or current activity, and identifying and characterizing candidate sites for future detailed exploration

  • Understanding Europa’s space environment and interaction with the magnetosphere

Congress would still need to approve spending for Clipper. But NASA is prepared for potential funding setbacks that may get in Clipper’s way, Niebur says: “It’s all part of the risk and glamour of space exploration.”

Previously, NASA proposed a joint mission to Europa with the European Space Agency (ESA). In 2011, however, the agencies shelved that plan, and ESA is now pursuing its own mission to Jupiter’s icy moons.