Here's another great reason to fund space exploration.
NASA officials are pushing for the final go-ahead on a potential unmanned mission to Jupiter's moon, Europa. And they've just sweetened the deal by asking scientists to consider how such a mission might search for signs of alien life there, according to Space.
Officials have challenged researchers to determine ways that a probe could detect evidence of extraterrestrial life in plumes of water vapor that the Hubble Space Telescope has observed erupting off the moon's surface. NASA posits could be evidence of an ocean hidden under Europa's icy surface.
The Obama administration last month boosted NASA's 2016 budget request, which allocates $30 million out of NASA's $18.5 billion proposal to foster the beginnings of a mission to Europa.
"This is our chance," former astronaut and current NASA science chief John Grunsfeld told Space on Wednesday. "I just hope we don't miss this opportunity for lack of ideas."
NASA has big plans for the little moon: The space agency's mission concept, nicknamed the "Europa Clipper," would send a space probe on a $2.1 billion journey over a distance of 390 million miles to orbit Jupiter's moon. Over the course of 3.5 years, the spacecraft would make 45 flybys of Europa at altitudes ranging from 16 to 1,700 miles above the moon's frozen surface. The probe would employ remote sensing instruments to study the surface and subsurface of Europa, including the moon's hypothetical underground ocean, which the mission concept says "may be the best place in the solar system to look for currently existing life beyond Earth." After each approach, the probe would transmit the data gathered from Europa's atmosphere back to NASA scientists on Earth.
According to Grunsfeld, the sampling of Europa's water vapor plumes may be added to the Clipper's list of to-dos. "I don't want to be sitting in my rocking chair 20 years from now and think, 'We should have done something,'" he told Space. Currently, plans put the probe's launch at least seven years away, with an additional 6.5 years for travel through the solar system. If the Clipper delivers on data proving the existence of Europa's ocean, it could pave the way for a surface mission in the vein of the Mars Exploration Rover.
But congressional budget cuts could threaten the mission. The White House's budget request for NASA increases the space agency's funding by nearly half a billion dollars, but it still has to make it through a penny-pinching Congress that has shown skepticism about NASA's mission and the importance of space exploration. Sen. Ted Cruz, chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness, is NASA's most senior legislative overseer, despite previous attempts to slash the agency's budget.
Cruz, whose lack of familiarity with the scientific method should automatically disqualify him from overseeing the nation's space agency, may have done more damage to scientific inquiry than the trial of Galileo with his orchestration of the 16-day federal government shutdown. Hopefully for NASA, and for the potential for discovering alien life in our own solar system, the White House's budget allocation can withstand a skeptical Republican Congress.