Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Europa Clipper

In this quarter's issue of The Planetary Report from the Planetary Society, an article entitled "Turning the Tides: Setting Sail with the Europa Clipper" (written by Alyssa Rhoden and Bob Pappalardo) caught my attention.  I hadn't previously heard of the potential for this new spacecraft and mission to the outer solar system.  The Europa Clipper mission is currently a concept which is being considered by NASA as one of our next ventures into the outer solar system.

(Artist's concept of the Europa Clipper.  NASA)

The Europa Clipper is proposed as an orbiter which would not be put into direct orbit of Europa, but would rather orbit Jupiter with the intentions of many close fly-bys of Europa.  The mission could see as many as 32 fly-bys to within 100 km of the icy surface of the little ice moon.  Such a mission could provide us with a great wealth of information about the surface and sub-surface characteristics of Europa, perhaps even revealing the nature of sub-surface "plumbing" of water channels and veins and shallow, sub-surface lakes as well as giving us much needed information concerning the existence and proportions of the Europan sub-surface ocean.  The Europa Clipper has technically been in consideration since the late 1990's, but this more recent rendition of the concept that I've been reading about appears to be far more well developed (probably thanks to the Galileo and Cassini missions to the Jovian and Saturnian systems, respectively, as well as better overall development of space exploration technologies over the years).

As currently proposed, the mission would cost something in the range of $2 billion, which is far less than we would be paying for a mission which put an orbiter directly in orbit of Europa itself (the mechanics of trading from Jupiter orbit to Europa orbit would require far greater development of mission architecture for that purpose; such developments cost more and also may take away from the funding that can be put into science payloads.  Even though I would love to see an orbiter which is directly in orbit of Europa, the current and likely upcoming economics situations in the world make this far less likely to happen).

(Europa and the Bull, Asteas, Paestan circa 340 BCE)

I find the concept of the Europa Clipper mission to be highly valuable for space science, not just because of the fact that research regarding sulfur compounds on the surface of the icy moon is directly related to my personal graduate research but also because Europa is one of the few places in our solar system which we should rightfully examine for its potential for the existence of past or present life - so that we may learn more about ourselves, about life in the universe, and about the origins and evolution of life.  I for one will be closely following the development of this concept and I really hope to see the mission coming to further development and perhaps even becoming a full-fledged mission in the coming years.

Here are some links to more info regarding the Europa Clipper:

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