DeFlip Side #148: Ice Fishing on Europa

DS148.mp3

Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.

Scientists think of it as our best chance to find alien life in the Solar System. But I think of it as the ice-fishing trip of a lifetime.

Earlier this week, NASA formally asked the scientific and engineering communities for ideas for a mission to Europa that would cost less than $1 billion. The request follows hard on the heels of the space agency’s earlier announcement that it plans to send an expedition to the icy moon of Jupiter by the year 2025.

Right about now you may be thinking of Dave Bowman and the Monolith and of HAL 9000 warning us not to attempt a landing on Europa. It’s no mystery why Arthur C. Clark chose it as the birthplace of a new alien species at the end of his novel 2010: Odyssey Two.

Europa is smaller than Earth’s moon, but it has a thin oxygen atmosphere and more water than on all of Earth. Its thick ice mantle is so cracked and tortured by Jupiter’s gravity and radiation that it looks kind of like a giant, bloodshot eye without a pupil. But churning beneath the ice is a liquid ocean deeper than any on Earth. And scientists think it may be teeming with three million tons of fish-like creatures.

Now I’ve enjoyed may an ice-fishing trip, but this one sounds like a doozy. So with all this potential to definitively prove the existence of extraterrestrial life, why has it taken NASA so long gather its bait, shoulder its auger and get out on the ice?

Well, as unbelievable as it sounds, the agency just doesn’t seem that interested in going to Europa right now. And all this hoopla about a Europa mission may only be lip service in response to political pressure.

So what’s going on here? Well here’s what we know.

A trip to Europa presents such a host of unique challenges that NASA is still trying to map out just what such a mission would entail. The government has already given the agency a total of $155 million just to study these preliminaries.

Europa is constantly buffeted by insanely high radiation from Jupiter, and sits deep in the gas giant’s massive gravity well. So NASA has to design new instruments that will work in these extreme conditions. NASA also has to make sure that no Earth organisms or microbes hitch a ride on the mission and contaminate Europa’s potentially habitable environment. Call it a precursor to the Prime Directive.

NASA has devised a few concepts to meet these challenges. Among them is the Jupiter Europa Orbiter, which would have orbited Europa as part of a joint mission with the European Space Agency. But the mission was scrapped because of its $5 billion price tag.

A cheaper alternative is called the Europa Clipper, which would actually orbit Jupiter and make several flybys of Europa to analyze the moon and its oceans. It could even potentially fly through plumes of water vapor erupting from Europa’s south pole–geysers taller than Mount Everest, which were recently discovered by the Hubble Telescope.

The price tag on the Clipper would be only about $2 billion. But the agency still just doesn’t have the budget. This may be why NASA has asked the broader scientific community for more practical mission ideas with a $1 billion price cap.

But that could also be a staling tactic. NASA is focused on other missions, and just doesn’t seem that interested in committing to Europa right now. The agency only asked for $15 million in its 2015 budget to study the Europa mission.

But ironically, thanks to Europa enthusiasts in Congress, some analysts speculate that they may pony up closer to $100 million to study the mission.

Leading this charge is Huston Congressman John Culberson, who may soon chair the committee responsible for NASA’s funding. Here what he told the Houston Chronicle in December:

“It needs to be a flagship mission. The biggest and best we’ve ever flown. I will be in exactly the right place at the right time to be able to help turn NASA around, to not only preserve America’s leadership role in space, but I also hope to be a key part in discovering life on another world for the first time. I want to make sure you and I are here to see those first tube worms and lobsters on Europa.”

So the bottom line is that even if NASA doesn’t want a mission to Europa, it’s apparently having one thrust upon it.

But why the passive pushback from NASA? I’ll hazard a guess. Political winds will inevitably shift long before a complicated Europa mission gets off the ground. And NASA doesn’t want to find itself at the end of a blind alley if and when future politicians decide to scrap the program. It’s happened before. So it’s easy to see why the agency is reticent to let fleeting outside forces dictate how it spends its limited budget.

But I say: bow to the political pressure, NASA! How often do you have the government enthusiastically throwing money at you? Run with it! Turn Europa into your biggest flagship mission ever. Something they can’t kill.

This icy little satellite has the potential to fire the public imagination like nothing else in the solar system, and may be just the thing to rekindle mass enthusiasm in the space program, a new moon shot for the 21st Century. A mission there could lead to the greatest discovery of all time: proof of extraterrestrial life. You don’t have to be an ice fishing science geek like me to get excited about that.

But those tube worms and lobsters aren’t going to catch themselves. So get your interplanetary tip-ups ready NASA, and venture forth onto that Europan ice.

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