Tucked inside the awesomely generous FY2016 budget for NASA is an appropriation of $175 million for a mission to Europa, as Ars Technica noted on Wednesday. Not only will the probe launch in 2022, likely on a heavy lift Space Launch System, but it will include a lander. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden is somewhat miffed at this requirement. Somewhere, Arthur C. Clarke, the author of “2010: Odyssey Two,” must be appreciating the irony. Clarke had written the bit of dialogue for the super aliens in the novel and the 1984 film, “Attempt no landing here.” Unfortunately for Bolden and whatever aliens there might be, Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas disagrees.
Culberson, as his congressional website would suggest, has something of an obsession with the ice-bound moon of Jupiter.
“In planetary science, I have been a staunch advocate for our next large planetary mission, which will explore Europa, a moon of Jupiter. Europa has a vast saltwater ocean containing two to three times as much water as we have on Earth. This water has likely been heated through tidal flexing and volcanoes on the ocean floor created by Jupiter’s massive gravitational force. The most recent discovery of venting from Europa’s south pole is an encouraging sign that the ice may be relatively thin, providing easier access to explore the depths below. I am so enthusiastic about this mission because I truly believe that when we first find life on another world, it will be in the immense ocean of Europa.”
NASA’s search for life elsewhere in the solar system has thus far concentrated on the hunt for microbes on Mars. But, as Culberson, who has studied the science, suggests, the warm water ocean beneath the ice layer of Europa may be a better place to look. With water, heat, and the proper chemical building blocks, life may exist there, perhaps complex life. Europan life would be of the sort that evolved without having ever seen the Sun.
Bolden, by all accounts, is aghast that some congressman is making decisions about what NASA does. Ars Technica quotes the NASA administrator as saying, “My scientific community, the people who do mission planning, say we need to go and do a little research with the first mission to Europa to determine whether that’s a place we want to send a lander. That’s the point of our big disagreement with Congressman Culberson right now. He wants a multibillion dollar Europa mission that has a lander on the first flight and everything. Our belief is that that is imprudent from a scientific perspective.”
That sentiment is hardly what got NASA to put a man on the moon in eight years. Besides, Culberson has consulted scientists on his own, who disagree with Bolden and are excited about a mission that will be the first to land on an icy moon in the Outer Planets. Culberson is the appropriator for NASA in the House and, therefore, holds wide sway over what NASA does and does not do. Also, he is disposed to hand out sufficient money to make it happen, which reveals a seriousness toward dreams of exploring space that has been lacking in the political class up until now.