NASA budget calls for mission to Jupiter's moon Europa

Two views of Jupiter's ice-covered satellite, Europa. The left image shows the approximate natural color appearance of Europa. The image on the right is a false-color composite to enhance color differences in the predominantly water-ice crust of Europa.
Two views of Jupiter's ice-covered satellite, Europa. The left image shows the approximate natural color appearance of Europa. The image on the right is a false-color composite to enhance color differences in the predominantly water-ice crust of Europa.
Image courtesy of JPL/NASA.

Listen to story

00:55
Download this story 0MB

NASA's proposed budget for 2016 sets aside money for projects like a new Mars Rover, a mission to Jupiter's moon Europa, and a plan to capture and redirect an asteroid.

It also cuts funding for the long lived Mars Opportunity rover and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, effectively shutting down both instruments.

The $18.5 billion request was unveiled Monday by administrator Charles Bolden during a briefing at Florida's Kennedy Space Center.

It's $500 million more than the 2015 enacted budget and includes $1.36 billion set aside for planetary science.

As part of that, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena would be tasked with designing an unmanned probe that could study Europa, a moon that might harbor alien life.

"I am thrilled," said JPL scientist Robert Pappalardo.

(Hear a song about Europa written for the science podcast "Brains On.")

Europa is one of Jupiter’s four major moons, and scientists think under its icy shell, there’s a vast ocean of liquid water. It's that water that leads scientists to wonder if life has developed there.

Pappalardo began plotting a mission to Europa back in 1999.

He said over the years, every budget unveiling was like the 1993 Bill Murray comedy "Groundhog Day" where the same thing happened over and over again: no money for Europa.

“And I think we’ve finally broken out of the time loop to the point where we can move forward and work toward a real mission to Europa," Pappalardo said.

Last year the Europa project was given a one year, preliminary budget of $100 million. Monday's announcement set aside $285 million in funding over five years.

JPL plans to create an orbiter that would circle Jupiter but pass Europa dozens of times, gathering data along the way.

The instrument selection process for the probe will begin this spring.

Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff of Burbank called the 2016 budget request "mixed."

"On the one had the NASA overall budget is improved, which is great," he said.

But he quickly added that the amount of money set aside for planetary sciences is less than Congress enacted the year before.

Schiff also called the decision to end the Mars Opportunity and Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter missions perplexing and disappointing.

"When we have craft that are out there doing good science, they shouldn’t be turned off merely because they lived longer than their intended life," he said.

The Mars Opportunity rover touched down on the Red Planet in 2004 and is still operational. It was designed to look for the conditions favorable for life.

Even though its twin rover, Spirit, is no longer functioning, Opportunity continues to gather and send back data. 

"That rover is still producing a lot of value, a lot of good science," Schiff said. "We ought to keep the lights on."

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter was launched in 2009 and was built to map the surface of the moon.

Schiff said he plans to work with fellow Congressman to address these and other cuts before a final budget is passed.