Friday, January 22, 2016

Europa Budget Bulge



Casey Dreier with The Planetary Society made substantial contributions to this post.



In the children’s book, The Little Prince, there is a delightful drawing of a boa constrictor that has a bulging stomach because it swallowed an elephant.  In the coming year, I believe that the key development for NASA’s mission to Europa will be an agreement on how the agency plans to accommodate the monetary bulge that will come from funding this mission.  The results of the negotiations between the agency’s managers, the President’s budget managers, and Congress likely will determine when this and other new missions will fly in the coming decade.



(I had hoped to include the drawing from the book, but it appears that the copyright is still in effect in the United States and France.  You can see it at this webpage or a picture of a real constrictor after it swallowed a goat on this page.)






Summary of the planned Europa multi-flyby mission from a 2013 presentation.  This chart is the only one I know of that provides a cost estimate from an independent review.  The official budget for the mission has yet to be established and may differ from this estimate.  Since this slide, the actual instrument payload has been selected and Congress has mandated that the mission also carry a Europa lander.
 


So why does the boa-elephant analogy work for understanding the funding for the Europa mission?  Think of NASA’s planetary science budget as a hose – or snake if you prefer – that’s of relatively similar width from year to year (except for the attempted 20% cut 2013, but that’s another story). Generally, the overall amount of money available to fund all future and existing planetary missions is relatively consistent over the near future.



But when you’re building a spacecraft, your funding needs are not consistent year to year. Over the course of the development, costs grow substantially, peak, and then tail off. In the first years of developing a mission, spending is lower as much of the work is designing and validating technology needed for the spacecraft.  Spending rapidly increases as parts are built, greater numbers of engineers and technicians are assigned the project, and pieces are assembled and tested. Most projects actually peak in funding needs a year or two before they launch, creating the equivalent of an elephant’s bulge in a boa constrictor.  Spending typically drops before launch, finally reaching a low and steady pace that represents the costs of operating the mission in flight.



Because the overall amount of funding available for new missions is generally flat, NASA’s project managers carefully stagger the development of new missions in order to prevent different projects from peaking at the same time.




 
The actual and planned spending for planetary missions in development this decade showing the characteristic bulge in spending in the years leading up to launch (2016 for the OSIRIS-Rex asteroid sample missions, was to have been 2016 for the InSight Mars geophysical station, and 2020 for the Mars 2020 rover).  As the development funding bulge for one mission ramps down, the bulge for the next mission can ramp up without creating the need for wide swings in the overall Planetary Science Division’s budget.  Figures are from actual budgets through FY16 and are the projected funding from the FY16 budget proposal.




For the last several years, Congress and NASA have sparred over when the Europa mission should be staggered in respect to other missions. Supporters in Congress want to see the mission launch by 2022, and are willing to increase the overall funding available to Planetary Science to help incorporate the Europa bulge. NASA has only committed to sometime in the to the mid-to-late 2020s, and has shown little desire to increase overall funding to planetary science. To efficiently develop the Europa mission, the two will have to reach an agreement on a funding plan and launch date.



If a Europa mission is to launch by 2022, its funding peak will occur around the same time as the funding peak for the Mars 2020 rover, NASA’s other major planetary mission. NASA’s Mars 2020 rover and Europa missions are both Flagship missions with an expected cost of around $2 billion.  Congress, however, has stated that the Europa mission must utilize the Space Launch System booster (cost unknown) and include a lander that could add upwards of $700M to the mission’s total cost.  The net result is that Congress has mandated two large simultaneous bulges be funded at once for the 2020 rover and Europa mission.



Absent an increase in the budget for the Planetary Science Division in the late 2010s, these large missions could crowd out other, smaller missions.  Both Congress and the White House have shown interest in ramping up the low-cost Discovery program over the next few years in an attempt to restore the cadence destroyed by cuts earlier in the decade. There is also the next New Frontiers mission, a medium-class planetary spacecraft that would launch by 2024.  The funding bulges for these missions could overlap those of the Mars 2020 and Europa missions, creating more competition for funding.



To achieve everyone’s goals would require an increase of funding for NASA’s Planetary Science Division significantly above what the White House has proposed in recent years. 




 
Jason Callahan and Casey Dreier of The Planetary Soceity have estimated what future NASA planetary budgets might look like if all the missions planned for development in the next few years are budgeted.   The result is a substantial increase over the current planetary budget for Fiscal Year 2016 of $1.63B.




First, some background. Unlike Congress, which only appropriates money on an annual basis. Budgets proposed by the President’s budget officers (in consultation with NASA’s managers) project out five years, with the first year the actual request for the next year’s funding from Congress and the subsequent years being notional, but indicative of the agency’s planning. For NASA to issue the multi-year contracts needed to develop a mission, there has to be a clear, long-term commitment from the agency that is reflected in the official budget request. It is very rare for a spacecraft to successfully come to fruition without appearing in the official President’s budget.



We will soon see if there is agreement for the Planetary Science budget to increase to accommodate this new mission. The President’s FY2017 budget request will be released in early February, we will see if it contains the larger proposed funding to include a Europa mission launch in the early 2020s.



But if the overall budget of planetary science doesn’t increase, there are several alternatives that the Administration could pursue:



  • Delay the launch of the Europa mission to the mid-2020’s to push out its spending bulge well after the Mars program needs
  • Delay the smaller Discovery and New Frontiers missions and use that funding for Europa, which would result in an unbalanced planetary program with just two Flagship missions launching in the next decade. And this wouldn’t provide all the funding needed for the two Flagship missions.
  • Take the additional funding from elsewhere in NASA’s budget (which would result in either hurting the human spaceflight program that has strong political backing, or hurting one of NASA’s other science program such as the Earth Science program (the latter of which has been proposed by various members of Congress, but which I oppose – we are rapidly modifying our planet and need satellites to identify and monitor the changes))

Any of these alternatives represent solutions typical of those made in budget negotiations, which assume a flattish overall budget with the individual line items being traded off.



I’m hoping that this year represents a new possibility.  The public has repeatedly shown its interest in planetary exploration through its avid following of missions in the press and the internet.  Congress has noticed that interest and been willing to support increases in the NASA’s planetary program for several years.  Several key members of Congress also are personally interested in planetary exploration specifically and space science in general and have consistently added money for Europa over the past few years. Congress has also consistently increased NASA’s budget since 2013, providing a surprising (and welcome) 7% increase in 2016.



This seems to be the year to attempt to create a political consensus for a new, higher spending rate for NASA’s planetary program.  The set of proposed missions is compelling.  Congress is willing.  For the next year, before the next President changes the players with the resulting delay in dealing with new policies, we have stable management teams in the President’s budget office and at NASA.  And public interest groups like the Planetary Society have shown that they can demonstrate the public’s support for increased funding and build the political case for the needed funding.



These budget issues aren’t unique to the Europa mission.  They occur with any large mission as NASA’s budgets are planned.  In a zero-sum game, something has to give.  In recent years, though, Congress has shown its willingness to increase the size of the budget to match the vision.  Perhaps it will be possible to have a dream line of up missions in development: Mars 2020, Europa, two or more Discovery missions, and a New Frontiers mission.  It’s worth working for.



Appendix: Estimated Europa mission costs



I have seen just one official cost estimate for the Europa multi-flyby mission (previously called the Europa Clipper) in a mission definition update.  That estimate was for $2.1B without the launch (and was made by the Aerospace Corporation, which NASA uses to provide independent mission cost estimates).  To estimate total spending that must be done before a possible 2022 launch, we need to add in the possible costs of the newly required Europa lander and the launch vehicle.  We should also subtract the costs of post launch operations (which seem to run $50M to $70M a year for Flagship missions) and money already spent or appropriated through FY16.



Here’s what the budget swag looks like:



              +$2.1B  Multi-flyby spacecraft

              +$0.5B  SLS launch vehicle*

              +$0.7B  Europa lander*

              -$0.3B   Post launch operations*

              -$0.4B   Already spent/appropriated



This back of the envelope calculation results in approximately $2.6B remaining spending before launch.  If launch is in 2022, then that leaves six years after FY2016, for an average spending rate of $440M per year.  More likely, there will be a higher peak spending rate for a couple of years with lower spending in the beginning and end of this period (based on spending patterns of other missions).  A possible average, though, is as far as I can push this thought experiment.



*SLS cost estimate from another Europa mission presentation; lander costs from a press account and may not be firm; operations costs assume a five year prime mission at a swag of $60M per year.




Thursday, January 7, 2016

New Frontiers Mission #4

I plan to do several blog posts on the New Frontiers 4 selection, and the list of missions that can be proposed.  For now, though, here's a brief summary of NASA's announcement plus the text of the announcement.


Big News: A mission to Titan/Enceladus has been added to the list of missions that scientists can propose:

Comet Surface Sample Return,
Lunar South Pole-Aitken Basin Sample Return,
Ocean Worlds (Titan and Enceladus),
Saturn Probe,
Trojan Tour and Rendezvous, and
Venus In Situ Explorer

Selection in spring 2019, launch in 2024 or 2025.  Up to three MMRTGs available.

Text of the announcement:


Community Announcement Regarding New Frontiers Program Announcement of
Opportunity

Estimated Release of draft AO .....................………...July 2016 (target)
Estimated Release of final
AO.....................................January 2017 (target)
Estimated Proposal due date........................................90
days after AO release

This community announcement is an advance notice of NASA’s Science
Mission Directorate (SMD) plan to release a Draft Announcement of
Opportunity (AO) for New Frontiers Program mission investigations with
a target release date of July 2016.

The New Frontiers Program conducts Principal Investigator (PI)-led
space science investigations in SMD’s planetary programs under a
not-to-exceed cost cap for the PI-Managed Mission Cost (PMMC).  At the
conclusion of Phase A concept studies, it is planned that one New
Frontiers investigation will be selected to continue into subsequent
mission phases.  There will be no Missions of Opportunity (MO)
solicited as part of this AO.  All MOs are now solicited through the
Stand Alone Mission of Opportunity Notice (SALMON) AO.  New Frontiers
Program investigations must address NASA’s planetary science
objectives as described in 2014 NASA Strategic Plan and the 2014 NASA
Science Plan.  Both documents are now available
athttp://science.nasa.gov/about-us/science-strategy/.

Investigations are limited to the following mission themes (listed
without priority):

Comet Surface Sample Return,
Lunar South Pole-Aitken Basin Sample Return,
Ocean Worlds (Titan and Enceladus),
Saturn Probe,
Trojan Tour and Rendezvous, and
Venus In Situ Explorer.

Five themes are described in the Planetary Science Decadal Survey.
The Ocean Worlds theme for this announcement is tentatively focused on
the search for signs of extant life and/or characterizing the
potential habitability of Titan or Enceladus.   The draft AO will
fully elucidate information on the mission themes.

The time frame for the solicitation is intended to be:

Release of final AO...........................................January
2017 (target)
Preproposal conference...................................~3 weeks
after final AO release
Proposals due ...................................................~90
days after AO release
Selection for competitive Phase A studies....November 2017 (target)
Concept study reports due...............................October 2018 (target)
Down-selection .................................................May
2019 (target)
KDP B .................................................................August
2019 (target)
Launch readiness date ....................................2024

PI-Managed Mission Cost (PMMC) for investigations are capped at a
Phase A-D cost of $850M (FY 2015$) with exclusions as noted in this
announcement.  The now-standard 25% minimum reserve on Phases A-D will
be required within the PMMC.  Operations costs (Phase E and F) are not
included in the PMMC, but will be evaluated for reasonableness.  This
exclusion for operation costs will not apply to the development of
flight or ground software, ground hardware, or testbed development or
refurbishment that occurs after launch.  These activities will be
considered deferred Phase C/D work and their costs will be included
under the PMMC.  Only costs related to spacecraft operations will be
excluded from the PMMC.  Lower-cost investigations and cost-efficient
operations are encouraged.

Launch Vehicle costs and procurement will be the responsibility of
NASA.  A standard launch performance capability will be defined and
provided as GFE and its cost will not be included in the PMMC.  The
cost of mission specific and special launch services, such as for
higher performance launch vehicles or the use of nuclear materials,
are the responsibility of the PI and must be included within the PMMC.
Details of these costs are still under discussion.

The value of foreign contributions remains constrained as was done for
the recent Discovery Program AO.  The total value of foreign
contributions may not exceed one-third of the PMMC, and the value of
foreign contributions to the science payload may not exceed one-third
of the total payload cost.

Investigations may propose the use Multi-Mission Radioisotope
Thermoelectric Generators (MMRTG) and Radioisotope Heater Units
(RHUs).  Some of the costs for the use of these systems and materials
will be included in the PMMC as detailed below.  These costs are not
final and may change.

Up to three MMRTGs are available at the cost of $105M for one unit,
$135M for two units, and $165M for three units.  The cost for the
unit(s) is included in the PMMC.  In addition, the usage of MMRTG(s)
requires delaying the LRD by at least one year to no earlier than 2025
to allow for mission-specific funding to support provision of MMRTGs.
43 RHUs are available as GFE, and the cost of the units is not
included in the PMMC.  However, the PMMC will include approximately
$26M of costs associated with the use of RHUs.

In addition to the costs above, investigations using either MMRTGs or
RHUs will also incur approximately $28M or $21M, respectively, in
costs for special launch services against the PMMC.

NASA will provide incentives for technology infusion into New
Frontiers investigations.  NASA is considering providing technologies
as Government-Furnished Equipment (GFE), including up to 43 RHUs and
the NASA Evolutionary Xenon Thruster (NEXT) ion propulsion system (two
flight model power processing units and two thrusters).  NASA is also
considering providing an increase to the PMMC cap for investigations
utilizing the Heat Shield for Extreme Entry Environment Technology
(HEEET), a woven Thermal Protection System.  In addition, NASA is
considering limiting the risk assessment of certain technologies to
only their accommodation on the spacecraft and the mission
environment.

This incentivized technology list is not complete, and decisions on
the specific technologies and the nature of their associated
incentives will be made before the release of a draft AO.  A
Technology Workshop will be held in early 2016 to provide technology
developers a chance to provide detailed information to proposers.  All
NASA-incentivized technologies will participate in this workshop, but
other participants will be welcome as well.

New Frontiers Program investigations involving entry, descent, and
landing (EDL) into the atmosphere of a Solar System object (including
the Earth) shall include an Engineering Science Activity, to be funded
outside of the cost cap, to obtain diagnostic and technical data about
vehicle performance and entry environments. Details of the goals and
objectives of this activity will be posted on the New Frontiers
Program Acquisition Website (http://newfrontiers.larc.nasa.gov/) in
the Program Library.

New Frontiers Program investigations may propose activities that have
the potential to broaden the scientific impact of investigations as
optional Science Enhancement Options (SEOs).  SEOs include, but are
not limited to, guest investigator programs, general observer
programs, participating scientist programs, interdisciplinary
scientist programs, and archival data analysis programs.  NASA is
considering allowing New Frontiers Program investigations to also
propose Technology Demonstration Opportunities (TDOs) to demonstrate
new capabilities.  TDOs and SEOs are funded outside of the PMMC cap
and may possibly not be selected even if the parent mission is
selected for flight.

NASA will release a draft of the New Frontiers AO in the summer of
2016.  The draft AO will be based on the recent Discovery AO, as well
as the Standard PI-led Mission AO Template.  NASA has begun its
regular assessment and revision of the Standard AO, and, once it is
complete, the Draft New Frontiers AO will be written and provided for
public comment.  Proposers should read the Draft New Frontiers AO
carefully when it is released.

NASA has not approved the issuance of the New Frontiers AO and this
notification does not obligate NASA to issue the AO and solicit
proposals. Any costs incurred by prospective investigators in
preparing submissions in response to this notification or the planned
Draft New Frontiers AO are incurred completely at the submitter's own
risk.

Further information will be posted on the New Frontiers Program
Acquisition Page at http://newfrontiers.larc.nasa.gov/ as it becomes
available.

Questions may be addressed to Dr. Curt Niebur, New Frontiers Program
Lead Scientist, Planetary Science Division, Science Mission
Directorate, NASA, Washington, DC 20546; Tel.: (202) 358-0390; E-mail:
curt.niebur@nasa.gov.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

European Contribution to NASA's Europa Mission

Spaceflight Now has an article on the interest of European Space Agency managers of making a major contribution to NASA's Europa mission.  What the article lacks is a statement of whether or not there is sufficient mass margin in the mission to carry both the newly mandated NASA Europa lander and a European contribution.  It's possible that NASA doesn't yet know since it has been examining the lander concept, at the request of Congress, for only a few months.  

If NASA concludes that there is mass for a European contribution, teams of scientists can propose concepts for the next ESA medium class mission selection.  The competition will be tough with with other teams likely to propose a number of other compelling astrophysics and planetary mission concepts.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

A Lander for NASA’s Europa Mission



“This Act includes $1,631,000,000 for Planetary Science.  Of this amount, $261,000,000 is for Outer Planets, of which $175,000,000 is for the Jupiter Europa clipper mission and clarifies that this mission shall include an orbiter with a lander that will include competitively selected instruments and that funds shall be used to finalize the mission design concept with a target launch date of 2022.”

“…$175,000,000 is for an orbiter with a lander to meet the science goals for the Jupiter Europa mission as outlined in the most recent planetary science decadal survey.  That the National Aeronautics and Space Administration shall use the Space Launch System as the launch vehicle for the Jupiter Europa mission, plan for a launch no later than 2022, and include in the fiscal year 2017 budget the 5-year funding profile necessary to achieve these goals.”

- Final budget law for Fiscal Year 2016 regarding NASA’s Europa mission

While there’s at least eight years until it launches, this has been a pivotal year for developing NASA’s Europa mission.  Last spring, NASA selected a rich and highly capable instrument set.  This summer, following a design concept review, the mission moved from concept studies to an official mission.  And just last week, Congress directed NASA to expand the mission by adding a small lander as well as launch the mission by 2022 and use the Space Launch System. These latter aren’t just suggestions: they are the law.

There’s been almost no official information on the lander.  What we know comes from a long article from Ars Technica’s Eric Berger on the then possible addition of a lander and a dedicated plume flyby sub-satellite.   Berger is a long time space reporter and has developed a good relationship with House Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman John Culberson (R-TX).  (I make sure I read all of Berger’s articles.)  As Berger describes in detail in his article, Culberson has been the driving force behind the aggressive funding for this mission. 

In addition to an earlier launch, .Culberson also has wanted to see the mission carry a lander in addition to the mother craft that would make at least 45 close flybys of the moon.  In prior years, Culberson added funding to NASA’s budget specifically to study a lander option, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s engineers have been studying options.  Berger’s story is focused more on Culberson, but it does provide a number of facts about the possible design for the lander:

The leading concept for the lander would be a small lander, perhaps about 230 kg with 20-30 kg for instruments.  For comparison, the 1996 Mars Pathfinder lander had a mass of 265 kg.

The lander would be delivered to Jovian orbit by the main spacecraft and then released in a high parking orbit well outside the intense radiation fields at Europa’s orbit.  The main spacecraft would study Europa’s surface for two to three years during its flybys to find the best combination of a scientifically interesting and safe landing spot.  

The actual landing would use the same skycrane approach used by the Curiosity Mars mission to deliver the lander safely to the surface. 
 
The lander would likely last perhaps 10 days on the surface using battery power.  During the lander’s lifetime, it would investigate the chemistry of the surface using a mass spectrometer and possibly a Raman spectrometer.

A lander could add $700M or more to the mission cost.  The last cost estimate I heard for just the main spacecraft was $2.1B.  We don’t know how firm the lander cost estimate is.

Adding a lander would delay launch from a possible 2022 to 2023.

This description is pretty bare bones, but with a little legwork, it is possible to flesh out these ideas with some informed speculation.  It helps that a number of previous studies have been published that examined concepts for a Europa lander.

In the mid-2000s, NASA studied a small Europa lander that would have had similar mass and capabilities to those reportedly be considered for the approved Europa mission. Credit: NASA/JPL.

The primary goal of any lander would be to sample material from the interior ocean to see if the chemicals needed to support life are present and whether complex organic molecules suggesting biotic or pre-biotic activity exist.  We lack the technology to drill through the kilometers of ice to reach the ocean directly.  However, in many locations the icy shell appears to be fractured and water from below has spilled onto the surface and frozen and in certain locations may be actively venting into space.  The goal will be to set the lander down in one of these zones.

Our current knowledge of Europa’s surface is too poor to select the scientifically most interesting sites that are also safe to land in.  The main spacecraft will spend three years circling Jupiter and flying low over Europa 45 times.  One of its prime goals will be to for its cameras and spectrometers to find the optimal combination of evidence of ocean material on the surface with a safe landing zone.  Any landing will need to wait for scientists to build their high resolution maps.

One aspect of this proposed lander concept is different than those I’ve seen before.  Most lander studies have looked at small spacecraft (and this proposal would count as a small spacecraft) that would be carried by the mother craft until just before landing.  For the design Berger reported on, lander and its descent stage would orbit Jupiter on their own for months to years before landing.  This means that together they are a fully functional independent spacecraft with its own solar arrays for power, propulsion, navigation, and communications.  Apparently the cost and mass of adding these functions to the descent stage and lander is a better bargain than adding the radiation hardening that would be required if the lander were carried past Europa 45 times.

Once on the surface, the lander could be well protected from radiation.  The rotation of Jupiter’s magnetosphere causes the radiation to slam into Europa’s trailing hemisphere.  The leading hemisphere has Europa’s bulk as a very effective radiation shield, and radiation there is fairly low.  Past proposals have focused on putting a lander on the leading hemisphere.  As a result, the lander likely would run out of power before radiation would fry its electronics.  Fortunately, there are several regions on the leading hemisphere where the icy shell appears to have been recently (in geologic terms, anyway) fractured.

Berger’s article states that the lander likely would be powered by batteries, limiting its life to around 10 days.  Solar panels apparently are being considered, but I can see why they might not be attractive.  Sunlight at Jupiter is weak, and solar panels large enough to harvest a meaningful amount of that light might be too bulky and heavy for the mission. 

Berger’s article lists just two possible instruments for the lander.  Based on his language, the core instrument would be a mass spectrometer that would “weigh” the molecules and atoms in samples scooped, cut, or drilled from the surface.  Extremely complex molecules could suggest life, especially if they are rich in elements, like carbon, which are the basis for life on the Earth.  A second instrument under consideration would be a Raman spectrometer that would illuminate samples with lasers and use the resulting “glow” to measure composition including complex organic molecules.  (For those who understand Raman spectroscopy, please forgive this simplification of a complex subject; here’s a link to a Wikipedia article for more on this technology.)  I’ve also heard through other sources that the lander would carry an imager to examine the terrain around the landing site.

Once on the surface, the lander would use a sample acquisition system to collect a sample of ice from the surface.  As Berger points out, at Europa’s surface temperatures, the ice is as hard as rock, so the cutting or drilling mechanism will need to be robust.  After the sample is collected, it would be delivered to the instruments to measure its composition.  If the lander touches down near an active vent, the mass spectrometer could also measure the composition of the particles and gases in the plume.

Previous studies typically have proposed at least two other instruments.  Europa’s icy shell is constantly being stressed by the tides induced by Jupiter which should produce high seismic activity.  A seismometer would give scientists a rich data set on the interior structure of the ice.  Europa also sits within Jupiter’s intense magnetosphere which causes an induced magnetic field in the moon’s interior ocean.  How this induced field varies as Europa orbits Jupiter would provide valuable clues to the size and salinity of the ocean.  A magnetometer on the lander could provide continuous measurements for the life of the lander.  Berger’s article was silent on whether or not these instruments are under consideration for this version of the lander. 

(On a side note, a magnetometer plus a simple plasma probe would allow the lander to conduct useful science while it orbits Jupiter waiting for landing.  Scientists would like to study Jupiter’s magnetosphere from multiple locations at once.  The lander while in orbit around Jupiter could complement similar measurements from the main spacecraft, and depending on the timing, also from Europe’s JUICE spacecraft that will enter Jovian orbit in the late 2020s.)

Berger’s article is silent on how data would be returned to Earth.  Two possibilities are obvious – low data rate transmissions directly from the lander to Earth or high data rate transmissions from the lander to the orbiter for later relay to Earth.  Data relay from the mother flyby spacecraft likely would be possible, but the rapidly changing relative locations of the landing site and the orbiter circling Jupiter may limit how much data could be returned and when communication relay is possible.  A recent European study for a Europa lander assumed that the mother spacecraft would have just one chance to directly receive data from the lander in a 10 day period.  One argument for excluding a seismometer is that this instrument would produce large amounts of data that may be difficult to return directly to Earth.  The European study found that the brief relay between lander and orbiter would have enabled the return of seismic data.   Magnetometers, on the other hand, produce only small amounts of data that likely could be directly relayed to Earth (assuming the lander would have that ability). 

In the highest resolution images obtained by the Galileo Jupiter orbiter, the regions of Europa that appear to be fractured and have possible ocean material on the surface are extremely rugged; these cliffs are approximately 10 stories tall.  Credit: NASA/JPL.

A major challenge for any Europa lander will be that the scientifically most interesting places to study also appear to have extremely rugged terrain which makes landing risky.  Berger’s article briefly mentions that the lander would use an autonomous landing system to examine the terrain below it to pick out safe spots to put down.  Technologies to allow a lander to image its landing site during descent have been studied for years and were implemented on the Chinese Chang’e 3 lunar lander and are under consideration for NASA’s 2020 Mars rover.   During final descent, these systems use images taken by the lander in real time to analyze the terrain below to identify safe landing zones.  With an autonomous guided descent, scientists can target an area that overall is rugged but has small safe zones.

What I conclude from the clues Berger supplies is that the Europa landing would be much like the Philae comet lander (although with Europa’s higher gravity, the lander will not bounce across the surface after touchdown as Philae did).  The lander would have just a few days to conduct its operations and return the data to Earth.  On Mars, we have become accustomed to landed missions that last years with plenty of time to carefully consider where to sample and then conduct follow up studies.  A Europa lander will be a mad dash to complete the science goals before the batteries die.

By the end of its life, the lander will have returned our first data directly from the surface of an ocean world that may harbor life that arose independently from the life on Earth.

Launch on the Space Launch System (SLS) booster currently being developed by NASA primarily to support human exploration would significantly shorten the flight time to Jupiter.  Other presentations list the nominal cost for an Atlas launch at ~$350M and for an SLS launch at ~$500M.  Reducing the cost of operations during the flight to Europa could make the SLS option, which is currently required by law, equal to or cheaper than the Atlas option.  Credit: NASA/JPL.
Editorial Thoughts:  I of course want to see a lander delivered to the surface of Europa, but I have mixed feelings about the inclusion of a lander on NASA’s first dedicated mission to Europa for two reasons.  First, as I will explore in more detail in my next post, adding a lander to the existing Europa mission will push its costs up, perhaps to the $3.5B range when including a launch on the SLS.  Congress will need to substantially increase the planetary budget to prevent the Europa mission from crowding out the smaller planetary missions that provide balance to the program.  While Congress can pass budget laws directing year to year spending, meeting these aggressive goals will require that the President’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) accepts the new plan and allows NASA to sign the necessary multi-year contracts with its vendors.  In the past, OMB has resisted prioritizing the Planetary Science budget to accommodate a Europa mission.

Second, the driving force behind the expanded mission depends on one Congressman and his continued re-election, his political party’s continued control of Congress, and his health.  The alternative approach would be to run the exploration as NASA has run the Mars program by spreading costs out over a sequence of missions.  This would be in the vein of the proposed “Ocean Worlds” program currently being shopped to NASA and Congress.

I expect that in the next few months that we will learn considerably more about the lander’s design and NASA’s plans on how it will fit into its overall planetary program.