NASA's 2016 budget was approved by President Obama last week, and it contained some exciting goals: "A robust planetary science program includes data analysis of ongoing missions, and development of the next Mars rover. NASA will also continue formulating a mission to Europa, Jupiter's icy moon that, data suggests, may have organic material on its surface."
It goes on: "In addition, over the next two years, Space Technology will execute several in-space demonstrations including: a deep space atomic clock for advanced navigation- particularly applicable to understanding Europa's under-ice liquid water oceans..." In fact, NASA considers a mission to Europa to be one of its two highest-priority "flagship" projects.
This gives the green light to NASA and JPL's proposed "Europa Clipper," which would place a spacecraft in orbit around Jupiter in order to perform a detailed study of Europa as it makes 45 close flybys of Europa at altitudes varying from 1700 miles to 16 miles.
NASA study teams determined that it could accomplish over 80 percent of the science that a Europa Orbiter would achieve for about 50 percent of the cost with a mission that stays in Jupiter orbit and conducts repeated focused flybys of Europa.
Some of the instruments the spacecraft may carry might include ground-penetrating radar that determine the thickness of the ice shell, an infrared spectrometer to investigate the composition of the ice, and a topographic camera capable of high-resolution imaging, among others.
According to NASA's budget proposal, "Jupiter's moon Europa is one of the most likely places to find current life beyond our Earth." Over the past 15 years NASA has been developing concepts to explore Europa in order to "determine if it is habitable based on characteristics of its vast oceans (twice the size of all of Earth's oceans combined), the ice surface – ocean interface, the chemical composition of the intriguing, irregular brown surface areas, and the current geologic activity providing energy to the system."
Top illustration by Ron Miller. Other art from NASA.