For those of us tired of watching the formerly impressive but now somewhat boring Mars Opportunity rover take pictures of rocks where it plans to parallel park on a planet we no longer can call our own, this is great news. President Obama released his Fiscal Year 2015 budget request and it contained $17.5 billion for NASA, which included $15 million to begin planning a mission to Jupiter’s moon, Europa, by 2030.
This is the first time the White House has even hinted at a Jupiter project and it’s expected to be the long discussed Clipper mission which would put a spacecraft in orbit around Jupiter in a position where it can analyze Europa, including a search for evidence of life on the icy surface of the moon that is the likeliest solar system candidate to harbor it. Besides radar for pinging the ice for depth, Europa would probably carry an infrared spectrometer for surface analysis, an ion and neutral mass spectrometer for atmospheric analysis and a topographic camera for surface photography.
All devices will spend time pointed at the moon’s south pole where geysers have recently been spotted faithfully spewing vapors 200 kilometers high. A probe to the surface would be ideal and NASA says it is open to ideas. The Russian space agency has talked about sending its own probe but right now it doesn’t appear their leader Vlad is interested in impaling anything but Crimea. Let’s be grateful that President Obama has shown a commitment to space exploration and the technology and innovation that it will develop and inspire.