NASA scientists are continuing to work on the Europa Lander, despite Trump’s proposal to cut its funding in NASA’s next fiscal year.
The decision to scrap plans for a lander on Europa came via the Trump Administration’s first federal budget last month. “[T]he Budget provides no funding for a multi-billion-dollar mission to land on Europa,” it stated.
However, at a meeting of the Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science at the National Academies in Washington last week, it was revealed that scientists were still working on the mission before it gets scrapped.
“We still have enough funding to make it through the end of the year for development,” said Barry Goldstein from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, reported SpaceNews. “We’re going to pursue the mission concept review and let the chips fall where they may as we proceed.”
While the Europa Lander is being scrapped, the budget still includes funding for an orbiting mission called the Europa Clipper in the 2020s. However, many had been hopeful of sending a lander there too, either on this mission or another, to get invaluable samples from the surface.
Europa is thought to house a vast and possibly habitable liquid water ocean under its icy surface, but accessing it is a bit difficult. It’s buried under tens of kilometers of ice, so we don’t have much hope of getting down there. But we can study the surface, and perhaps find material that’s been ejected from underground.
In fact, NASA has been testing a variety of ice tools that it may one day use on Europa. These include a thermos bottle filled with plutonium to melt through the ice, long and foldable robotic arms, and even wheels that could handle the icy surface.
The idea at the moment is for a lander to launch in October to December 2025, arriving at Jupiter in the 2030s. It would land on the surface using the same sky crane that delivered the Curiosity rover to the surface of Mars, and remain operational for at least 20 days. At the end of its life, it would use a “thermite-based incinerator” to destroy itself, according to SpaceNews, to ensure it did not contaminate the surface if left untamed.
Sadly, if Trump’s budget proposal goes through, the Europa Lander will be no more. But as it’s currently got funding, it seems scientists are doing as much research into it as possible before it faces the chop, with the possibility of rekindling interest in the future.