NASA Issues RFI for Europa Clipper Launch

Europa Clipper in orbit around Europa. (Credit; NASA)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

In a blow to Space Launch System (SLS) backers, NASA has issued a request for information (RFI) for the October 2024 launch of the Europa Clipper orbiter that will search for signs of life on Jupiter’s enigmatic, ice-covered moon Europa.

It’s a clear sign that NASA is seeking commercial alternatives to launching the spacecraft on SLS. Congress had previously mandated by law that Europa Clipper’s orbiter and a follow-up lander be launched on the massive rocket. However, the most recent spending law stipulated that NASA should use SLS if one is available.

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NASA’s Juno Mission Expands Into the Future

This view from the JunoCam imager on NASA’s Juno spacecraft shows two storms merging. The two white ovals seen within the orange-colored band left of center are anticyclonic storms – that is, storms that rotate counterclockwise. The image was taken on Dec. 26, 2019. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS Image processing by Tanya Oleksuik, © CC BY)

The spacecraft, which has been gathering data on the gas giant since July 2016, will become an explorer of the full Jovian system – Jupiter and its rings and moons.

PASADENA, Calif. (NASA PR) — NASA has authorized a mission extension for its Juno spacecraft exploring Jupiter. The agency’s most distant planetary orbiter will now continue its investigation of the solar system’s largest planet through September 2025, or until the spacecraft’s end of life. This expansion tasks Juno with becoming an explorer of the full Jovian system – Jupiter and its rings and moons – with multiple rendezvous planned for three of Jupiter’s most intriguing Galilean moons: Ganymede, Europa, and Io.

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NASA Extends Juno & InSight Planetary Missions

Citizen scientist Kevin M. Gill created this image using data from the spacecraft’s JunoCam imager. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — As NASA prepares to send astronauts back to the Moon and on to Mars, the agency’s quest to seek answers about our solar system and beyond continues to inform those efforts and generate new discoveries. The agency has extended the missions of two spacecraft, following an external review of their scientific productivity.

The missions — Juno and InSight — have each increased our understanding of our solar system, as well as spurred new sets of diverse questions. 

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Potential Plumes on Europa Could Come From Water in the Crust

This illustration of Jupiter’s icy moon Europa depicts a cryovolcanic eruption in which brine from within the icy shell could blast into space. A new model proposing this process may also shed light on plumes on other icy bodies. (Credit: Justice Wainwright)

Scientists have theorized on the origin of the water plumes possibly erupting from Jupiter’s moon Europa. Recent research adds a new potential source to the mix.


PASADENA, Calif. (NASA PR) — Plumes of water vapor that may be venting into space from Jupiter’s moon Europa could come from within the icy crust itself, according to new research. A model outlines a process for brine, or salt-enriched water, moving around within the moon’s shell and eventually forming pockets of water – even more concentrated with salt – that could erupt.

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Europa Glows: Radiation Does a Bright Number on Jupiter’s Moon

This illustration of Jupiter’s moon Europa shows how the icy surface may glow on its nightside, the side facing away from the Sun. Variations in the glow and the color of the glow itself could reveal information about the composition of ice on Europa’s surface. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

New lab experiments re-create the environment of Europa and find that the icy moon shines, even on its nightside. The effect is more than just a cool visual.


PASADENA, Calif. (NASA PR) — As the icy, ocean-filled moon Europa  orbits Jupiter, it withstands a relentless pummeling of radiation. Jupiter zaps Europa’s surface night and day with electrons and other particles, bathing it in high-energy radiation. But as these particles pound the moon’s surface, they may also be doing something otherworldly: making Europa glow in the dark.

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Senate Appropriations Committee Sticks a Fork in NASA’s 2024 Moon Landing Plan

Artemis Gateway (Credit: Thales Alenia Space/Briot)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

It looks as if the Trump Administration’s goal of landing astronauts on the moon in 2024 is expiring at about the same time as the administration itself. The fatal blow is being struck by Congress, not the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden.

The Senate Appropriations Committee has released a fiscal year 2021 funding bill that includes $1 billion for NASA to Human Landing System (HLS) that will take astronauts to and from the lunar surface as part of the Artemis program. The amount is far short of the $3.2 billion that NASA has said is needed for HLS to keep the 2024 landing on schedule.

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New Gears Can Withstand Impact, Freezing Temperatures During Lunar Missions

Andrew Kennett (left) watches as Dominic Aldi (right) uses liquid nitrogen to cool a motor integrated bulk metallic glass gearbox prior to shock testing it. The motor and gearbox are inside the frosty metal “bucket” that contains the liquid nitrogen. The tooling, including the “bucket” is designed to be mounted both vertically (shown) and horizontally on the cube for testing the motor and gearbox in three orientations. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

PASADENA, Calif. (NASA PR) — Many exploration destinations in our solar system are frigid and require hardware that can withstand the extreme cold. During NASA’s Artemis missions, temperatures at the Moon’s South Pole will drop drastically during the lunar night. Farther into the solar system, on Jupiter’s moon Europa, temperatures never rise above -260 degrees Fahrenheit (-162 degrees Celsius) at the equator.

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Are Planets with Oceans Common in the Galaxy? It’s Likely, NASA Scientists Find

This illustration shows NASA’s Cassini spacecraft flying through plumes on Enceladus in October 2015. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

by Lonnie Shekhtman
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

Greenbelt, Md. (NASA PR) — Several years ago, planetary scientist Lynnae Quick began to wonder whether any of the more than 4,000 known exoplanets, or planets beyond our solar system, might resemble some of the watery moons around Jupiter and Saturn.

Though some of these moons don’t have atmospheres and are covered in ice, they are still among the top targets in NASA’s search for life beyond Earth. Saturn’s moon Enceladus and Jupiter’s moon Europa, which scientists classify as “ocean worlds,” are good examples.

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Proposed NASA Mission Would Visit Neptune’s Curious Moon Triton

This global color mosaic of Neptune’s moon Triton was taken in 1989 by Voyager 2 during its flyby of the Neptune system. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech NASA/JPL/USGS)

PASADENA, Calif. (NASA PR) — When NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft flew by Neptune’s strange moon Triton three decades ago, it wrote a planetary science cliffhanger.

Voyager 2 is the only spacecraft ever to have flown past Neptune, and it left a lot of unanswered questions. The views were as stunning as they were puzzling, revealing massive, dark plumes of icy material spraying out from Triton‘s surface. But how? Images showed that the icy landscape was young and had been resurfaced over and over with fresh material. But what material, and from where?

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GAO: NASA Performance on Major Projects Continues to Deteriorate

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released its latest assessment of NASA’s major projects at the end of April. It found that NASA’s performance on its major projects continued to deteriorate on cost and schedule. (Full Report)

Below are key excerpts from the report that provide an overview of where NASA stands on its major projects. Although GAO did not analyze the Artemis program to return astronauts to the moon, the watchdog warned the Trump Administration’s decision to move the landing date up from 2028 to 2024 will put more pressure on the space agency.

“Looking ahead, NASA will continue to face significant cost and schedule risks as it undertakes complex efforts to return to the moon under an aggressive time frame,” the report stated.

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Europa Clipper Faces Delay Due to SLS Booster Decision

Europa Clipper in orbit around Europa. (Credit; NASA)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA’s Europa Clipper orbiter could be placed in storage for two years awaiting a ride to Jupiter’s icy moon at a cost of $250 million due to Congress’ insistence that it be flown aboard the Space Launch System (SLS), according to a new review by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The cost estimate assumes that the Europa orbiter will be ready for launch in July 2023. It would be placed in storage until launch aboard a SLS in September 2025.

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Newly Reprocessed Images of Europa Show ‘Chaos Terrain’ in Crisp Detail

In this gallery of three newly reprocessed Europa images, details are visible in the variety of features on the moon’s icy surface. This image of an area called Chaos Transition shows blocks that have moved and ridges possibly related to how the crust fractures from the force of Jupiter’s gravity. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute)

PASADENA, Calif. (NASA PR) — The surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa features a widely varied landscape, including ridges, bands, small rounded domes and disrupted spaces that geologists call “chaos terrain.” Three newly reprocessed images, taken by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft in the late 1990s, reveal details in diverse surface features on Europa.

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NIAC Award: Magneto-Inductive Communications for Ocean Worlds

Artist’s depiction of Magneto-Inductive Communications for Ocean Worlds on a “tunnelbot” melting through ocean ice. (Credits: Robert Romanofsky)

NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC)
Phase I Award
Amount: $125,000

Magneto-Inductive Communications for Ocean Worlds

Robert Romanofsky
NASA Glenn Research Center

A mission to the under-ice ocean of Europa is one of the highest priority missions for NASA. Galileo magnetometer measurements and other observations suggest a deep layer of electrically conductive fluid beneath the surface. Concepts for a probe to melt through the 5 to 10 km thickness of briny ice to reach the buried ocean have been proposed.

Model predictions for magnesium sulfide concentrations vary but a conductivity range between 0.1 and 3 S/m seems reasonable. Conventional communications links that rely on propagation of an electromagnetic field cannot penetrate – even if the sea ice conductivity is only 0.1 S/m. The electric field attenuation would exceed 100 dB/km even at very low frequencies.

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NIAC Award: Ultra Lightweight Nuclear Electric Propulsion Probe for Deep Space Exploration

Graphic depiction of the SPEAR Probe concept. (Credits: Troy Howe)

NASA Innovative Advance Concepts (NIAC)
Phase II Award
Amount: $500,000

SPEAR Probe – An Ultra Lightweight Nuclear Electric Propulsion Probe for Deep Space Exploration

Troy Howe
Howe Industries LLC

Nuclear electric propulsion (NEP) systems have the potential to provide a very effective transit mechanism to celestial bodies outside of the realm of solar power, yet the heavy power source and massive radiators required to justify a reactor core often push NEP spacecraft towards very large masses and major missions.

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NASA Scientists Confirm Water Vapor on Europa

On the left is a view of Europa taken from 2.9 million kilometers (1.8 million miles) away on March 2, 1979 by the Voyager 1 spacecraft. Next is a color image of Europa taken by the Voyager 2 spacecraft during its close encounter on July 9, 1979. On the right is a view of Europa made from images taken by the Galileo spacecraft in the late 1990s. (Credits: NASA/JPL)

By Lonnie Shekhtman
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

GREENBELT, Md. — Forty years ago, a Voyager spacecraft snapped the first closeup images of Europa, one of Jupiter’s 79 moons. These revealed brownish cracks slicing the moon’s icy surface, which give Europa the look of a veiny eyeball. Missions to the outer solar system in the decades since have amassed enough additional information about Europa to make it a high-priority target of investigation in NASA’s search for life.

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