NASA Ask Scientists to Think of Ideas for Europa Landing Instruments

NASA’s Europa Clipper mission is being designed to fly by the icy Jovian moon multiple times and investigate whether it possesses the ingredients necessary for life. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute)

WASHINGTON, DC (NASA PR) — NASA is asking scientists to consider what would be the best instruments to include on a mission to land on Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa.

NASA Wednesday informed the science community to prepare for a planned competition to select science instruments for a potential Europa lander.

While a Europa lander mission is not yet approved by NASA, the agency’s Planetary Science Division has funding in Fiscal Year 2017 to conduct the announcement of opportunity process.

“The possibility of placing a lander on the surface of this intriguing icy moon, touching and exploring a world that might harbor life is at the heart of the Europa lander mission,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “We want the community to be prepared for this announcement of opportunity, because NASA recognizes the immense amount of work involved in preparing proposals for this potential future exploration.”

The community announcement provides advance notice of NASA’s plan to hold a competition for instrument investigations for a potential Europa lander mission. Proposed investigations will be evaluated and selected through a two-step competitive process to fund development of a variety of relevant instruments and then to ensure the instruments are compatible with the mission concept.

Approximately 10 proposals may be selected to proceed into a competitive Phase A. The Phase A concept study will be limited to approximately 12 months with a $1.5 million budget per investigation. At the conclusion of these studies, NASA may select some of these concepts to complete Phase A and subsequent mission phases.

Investigations will be limited to those addressing the following science objectives, which are listed in order of decreasing priority:

  • Search for evidence of life on Europa
  • Assess the habitability of Europa via in situ techniques uniquely available to a lander mission
  • Characterize surface and subsurface properties at the scale of the lander

In early 2016, in response to a congressional directive, NASA’s Planetary Science Division began a study to assess the science and engineering design of a future Europa lander mission. NASA routinely conducts such studies — known as Science Definition Team (SDT) reports — long before the start of any mission to gain an understanding of the challenges, feasibility and science value of the potential mission. The 21-member team began work almost one year ago, submitting a report to NASA on Feb. 7.

The agency briefed the community on the Europa Lander SDT study at recent town halls at the 2017 Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) at The Woodlands, Texas, and the Astrobiology Science Conference (AbSciCon) in Mesa, Arizona.

The proposed Europa lander is separate from and would follow its predecessor — the Europa Clipper multiple flyby mission – which now is in preliminary design phase and planned for launch in the early 2020s. Arriving in the Jupiter system after a journey of several years, the spacecraft would orbit the planet about every two weeks, providing opportunities for 40 to 45 flybys in the prime mission. The Clipper spacecraft would image Europa’s icy surface at high resolution, and investigate its composition and structure of its interior and icy shell.

Wednesday’s community announcement in no way obligates NASA to solicit future proposals.

To view the Europa Lander Science Definition Team report:

For more information about NASA’s Europa Clipper mission:

  • Kapitalist

    One thing that facilitates an Europa landing is that radiation protection comes for free. I suppose that a deep ravine is the most interesting type of area to land in, giving even more protection from the wall sides. Just needs to wear a radiation shielding hat. But it must be hard to design a mission now given how little is known about Europa’s surface. A huge amount of work has been put into selecting Mars 2020 landing site. A Europa lander now, I think, would be more of a precursor mission for a follow up when they know how they should’ve done it.

  • JamesG

    “Approximately 10 proposals may be selected to proceed into a competitive Phase A. The Phase A concept study will be limited to approximately 12 months with a $1.5 million budget per investigation. “

    I better start working on my rainbow unicorn detector proposal!

  • windbourne

    Hopefully, they send a red dragon. That should be able to land with plenty of instruments, maybe even a small Rover.

  • Looking at this situation from the new quantum cosmological paradigm and perspective of ‘autobiogenesis’ and ‘active matter’, just from a gross color perspective alone it’s pretty clear Europa has been in the white smoker business down there for a long time, and Enceladus is relatively new to the scene.

  • Paul451

    Not on a large airless moon.

  • windbourne

    and yet, the red dragon will not be using parachutes on mars, and the amount of drag from martian atmosphere will be minimal. VERY minimal.

  • Paul451

    The atmosphere of Mars is equivalent to the upper level atmosphere of Earth. Ie, the part in which the re-entry capsules decelerate from orbital velocity down to their terminal velocity. More than thick enough for the job. (The only problem with Mars is that you leave the re-entry envelope only a few km above the ground, whereas on Earth there’s still 40km or so of atmosphere to continue to slow you down.)

    The parachutes on V1 and the SuperDracos on V2 (and Red) are only intended to deal with the last few hundred m/s delta-v after re-entry.

    The SuperDracos cannot provide the entire multi-km/s deorbital delta-v necessary when there’s no atmosphere. And the Isp for NTO/MMH is so low that adding enough the fuel for deorbital delta-v to land on a large airless object would take up the entire capsule.

    You could add external drop-tanks, move the SD’s to the trunk and turn that into a landing structure, etc etc, but what you’d end up with wouldn’t be a Dragon. The whole point of using Dragon as a low-cost solution would be lost and you might as well build a custom platform.

    A hybrid solution is to use a disposable “crasher” stage with a high-Isp engine and large tanks. It provides the km/s delta-v to deorbit the capsule to near-stationary velocity, then the vehicles separate and the capsule’s SD engines deal with the final couple of hundred m/s and landing. (The empty crasher-stage is allowed to crash somewhere nearby, hence the name.)

    Probably more mass overall than a custom lander, hence requiring a larger launcher or in-orbit refuelling. But if launch costs are low enough, then combining Dragon with a dumb crasher-stage might reduce the development costs compared to a full custom lander.