The White House FY2018 budget has proposed a 0.8% decrease in NASA funding over FY2017. Among the proposed missions cuts was NASA’s Europa Lander. In the past, NASA administrators have been skeptical of the Europa Lander and its costs, but current NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot has proven a supporter.
The project’s technical challenges include cutting through the harder-than-granite ice that forms a crust over Europa’s vast sub-ice oceans; developing advanced microscopes; creating a self-destruct system; developing batteries that can last in the harsh environment; providing advanced protection against extreme levels of radiation; and creating the Sky Crane, which will enable the lander to touch down safely. The team of engineers at the Jet Propulsion Lab has been making tremendous headway toward meeting all of those needs.
“We are confident we can make this work,” said Dara Sabahi, a lead engineer for the project, in an interview with arstechnica. “I believe the technologies are in reach, and the risks that bothered us are manageable.”
The lander’s mission objectives center on the detection and characterization of organic indicators of past or present life. Ordered by Congress in 2015, it was to be an extension of the Europa Clipper mission—a Europa flyby set for launch in the 2020s. In 2016, the lander mission was granted standalone status with bipartisan support under the leadership of Republican Representative John Culberson of Texas (Fig. 1), chairman of the House NASA Budget Subcommittee.
1. Congressman John Culberson (R-Tex.) has been a vocal supporter of NASA funding, including the search for extraterrestrial life. (Courtesy spacenews.com)
The Europa Lander mission has received more than half-a-billion dollars in research and development funding. The total budget to go to and land on Europa was pegged at $8 billion. The Europa Clipper mission, a flyby of the Jovian moon, would been retained in the budget, keeping alive the technological progress on advanced deep-space propulsion like the Space Launch System as well as new strategies for deep-space communications.
“Congress has the power of the purse and the president’s budget is a recommendation,” said Culberson, via a statement from his communications team. “As CJS chairman, I am always working to ensure our hard-earned tax dollars are being used effectively. NASA is a strategic national asset and I have no doubt NASA will receive sufficient funding to complete the most important missions identified by the science community, including seeking out life in the oceans of Europa.” Culberson had previously spoken with administration officials, including Vice President Pence, to ensure continued funding of the Europa missions.
What Are the Technological Costs?
The funding in question was being used for research and development of new deep-space technologies and innovations. The rotary saw and robotic arm developments have led to new blade types, drive trains, and surface materials for testing. The self-destruct system, a first of its kind, was needed to ensure that any microbial contamination from Earth could be prevented and halted upon discovery—an important development in the exploration of potentially life-harboring alien bodies.
The development of the Sky Crane (Fig. 2), also planned for use on a future Mars mission, could be similarly affected. The purpose of this technology was to achieve touchdown in coordination with retrorockets. (Given the lack of atmosphere, NASA is unable to use parachutes as it has done on previous lander missions.) The Sky Crane also featured technology that would seek to prevent contamination on Europa’s environment. Its tethers stand at 10 m, maintaining a height of 12 m over Europa’s surface.
2. The Sky Crane, currently under development for future mission on Mars and Europa, has been partially developed using funds for the Europa Lander project. (Courtesy NASA)
The descent procedure provided by the Sky Crane relies on four thrusters. They would be canted 5 deg. or 30 deg. This is all done to further prevent contamination of the moon’s surface and allow for a test-run for future landings on similar planetary bodies (Fig. 3). Beyond the desire to avoid contaminating an alien surface, these efforts prevent contamination of the samples sought for testing by NASA researchers and scientists.
3. Artist’s concept of the Europa Lander. (Courtesy NASA Jet Propulsion Lab)
NASA’s science and research is further complemented by the De-orbit, Descent, and Landing (DDL) system. The DDL system would provide high-resolution imaging during descent, utilizing extremely fine-scale digital terrain models (DTMs) in order to assist in a safe and lower-risk touch down procedure.
Finally, funds for the mission were being used to create the lander’s robotic arm. In the acquisition of samples, the arm would allow the engineering team to have precise control over arm motion and positioning. During all of these processes, the system would collect valuable thermal and physical parameters on the surface of Europa—data which, according to NASA, would be leveraged along with knowledge gained from the Sky Crane and the advanced imaging and modelling systems, to “feed-forward” into future deep space exploration missions.