Tag Archives: europa

Asteroid Spaceship And Fusion-Powered Pluto Orbiter Among New Funded NASA Projects

Managinga space agency requires being constantly at the forefront of science and technology, so for the last 18 years NASA has invested incutting-edge projects that make up the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program.

For 2016, NASA has selected 13 projects for the NIAC Phase I, which will test pioneering technologies for planetary exploration and long-distance astronomy. Each project will receive about $100,000 for nine months to support the initial definition and feasibility of these concepts.

The latest NIAC selections include a number of concepts for planetary and robotic exploration, said Steve Jurczyk, NASAs associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate in Washington, in a statement. NASA continues to value early stage concept studies for our future missions.

The projects vary in scope and breadth. Among themaretwo interesting ideas for icy moon exploration. The first, called NIMPH, focuses on a tiny lander that would collect a surface sample, convert materials into propellant, and lift off from Europa (or another icy moon) to then fly back to Earth. The second idea takes a page out of Jules Verne’s book and focuses on a tethered rover that wouldclimb down a cryovolcano and deploy a submarine to explore Enceladus or Europa’ssubsurface ocean.

The rest of Phase I concepts havea good share of innovative technologies. Theres TANDEM, a new lightweight landing system;acurious concept calledBrane Craft, an ultra-thin spacecraft that could be used to remove orbital debris at a fraction of the current cost; andProject RAMA, which wouldturn asteroids into automatic spaceships and move them out of dangerous orbits, or take them closer to Earth to be mined.

Artists depictionof the TANDEM concept.Included is thedeployable heat shield and tensegrity structure for high-risk landing zones during extreme environmental missions.Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Planets are also on the target list. Venus has only been explored by a handful of probes due to its surface temperature, which is high enough to melt electronics. For this reason, scientists are looking into AREE, a mechanical lander that would collectsamplesand send them back using transport balloons. Another venus-focused project is VIP-INSPR, which wouldexplore how to generate power on Venus using its toxic atmosphere.

NASAs Journey to Mars could also come to benefit from some of these projects. Theres a project focused on planning the most cost-efficient way for crew and cargo to get to Mars, and another looking for a way to harness microorganisms to use the Martian environment to recycle and print electronics.

The New Horizons and Dawn missions have also brought focus to the smaller but numerous objects in the Solar System. A laser-armed probecould be employed to study the composition of smaller objects from orbit, whileelectrically charged gliderscould use atmospheric plasma to fly around comets and asteroids.In addition, Pluto could receive an orbiter and lander powered by nuclear fusion.

The final project looks at the echo fromthe periodic oscillation of stars due to gravitational interactions with their planets. This technique could provide continent-level imaging of exoplanets, and it would be more cost effective than current imaging technologies.

The 2016 NIAC Phase I competition was fierce, as usual. All of the final candidates were outstanding, and limiting the choice to what fit in our budget was difficult, said Jason Derleth, NIAC program executive, in the statement. We hope each new study will push boundaries and explore new approaches thats what makes NIAC unique.

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Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/space/nasa-has-selected-its-advance-concept-projects-2016

Congress Just Gave NASA A Massive Budget For Next Year

Good news, everyone. NASAs latest budget has just been put forward by Congress and they have allocated the agency $750 million more than they requested. This means the agencys full budget for 2016 is $19.3 billion, which incredibly in an age of cutting costs is almost $1.3 billion more than last year.

The budget increases funding to several key programs at NASA, including its Commercial Crew program, its Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, and the Orion spacecraft. “We are going back into space with Americans on American rockets, and we are going to Mars,” Senator Bill Nelson said yesterday.

Perhaps most interestingly, $175 million of the budget has been set aside for the Europa Multi-Flyby Mission, a spacecraft that will be sent to Europa in the early 2020s, and the budget dictates that NASA must include a lander for the surface of this icy moon of Jupiter. “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,” it reads, reported Ars Technica.

A landerhas been touted for the upcoming Europa mission before, but NASA has not been keen to firmly commit to anything yet, as there are many unknowns about undertaking such a landing. It remains to be seen how they’ll go forward with this request.

Nonetheless, the large amount of funding essentially allows NASA to meet most of the other goals it has set itself. Crucially, they were given the $1.243 billion of funding for the Commercial Crew program that they have been pushing so hard for. Administrator Charlie Bolden recently told IFLScience that he counted this getting SpaceX and Boeings manned spacecraft up and running as one of the key goals of his time in office.

Wish you were here? Congress has told NASA they must senda lander to the surface of Europa. NASA

Elsewhere, planetary science has received a boost in the form of $1.631 billion $270 million above what the President requested. According to The Planetary Society, this “allows both the MER Opportunity rover and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to continue science operations.” The upcoming Mars 2020 rover, meanwhile, gets a $22 million boost.

The huge SLS, which Congress seems very keen to overfund, has been given $2 billion, $640 million above the $1.36 billion requested by the President. The SLS, if you arent aware, will eventually be used to take humans to Mars with the Orion spacecraft, which has been given an increase to $1.91 billion.

Of the areas to miss out on their requested levels of funding, one is the Earth Science Division, which received$1.921 billion less than the Presidents request but $149 million more than last year. Another is the Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD), which gets $686 million $39 million less than requested, but $90 million more than last year.

The budget still needs to pass a vote in Congress this week, which seems likely at the moment, although a controversial surveillance bill was snuck in along with it. If it gets bythis test, the White House will almost certainly sign it into law.

Onto Europa, then.

Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/space/congress-just-gave-nasa-massive-budget-next-year

Europa Might Be Hotter That Previously Thought

When looking for life outside Earth, Jupiter’s moon Europa, with its hypothesized underground ocean, is one of thestrongest candidates in the Solar System. Understanding this fascinating moon could prepare us for future missions there, so scientists are carefully looking at how Europa might have gotten its ocean.

One issue to be considered is how this ocean was kept as a liquid, but a team of astronomers from the U.S. has now suggested that Jupiter’s gravitational attraction has more of a heating effect than thought.Their prediction is an order of magnitude larger than previous estimates, and it better models the condition this (and maybe other) natural satellitesgothrough.

The results, published inEarth and Planetary Science Letters, focused on the ice grains found on Europa. The researchers ranexperiments to recreate the conditions the ice is subjected to, and they discovered that the main source of heat comes from defects in the crystal ice structure, which affects how heat is actually dissipated across the ice shell.

The beauty of this is that once we get the physics right, it becomes wonderfully extrapolative, said co-author Reid Cooper from Brown University in astatement.

Those physics are first order in understanding the thickness of Europas shell. In turn, the thickness of the shell relative to the bulk chemistry of the moon is important in understanding the chemistry of that ocean. And if youre looking for life, then the chemistry of the ocean is a big deal.

The complex surface of Europa is due to the tidal stress the planet is subjected to.NASA/JPL/University of Arizona/University of Colorado

The first indication of Europa being an active world came from images taken by theVoyager probesin 1979. The satellite was notthe smooth, icy ball that was expected, but was instead striped and cracked.

Europa is the sixth moon of Jupiter and orbits the planet in just over three days. It is tidally locked with Jupiter, meaning one face always points towards the gas giant,and it is in orbital resonance with two other moons, Io and Ganymede. The three moons’ periods arewhole integerratios of each other. That is to say, Ganymede’srevolution is twice as long as Europas, which is twice as long as Ios.

This combination of celestial mechanics, added tothe size of Jupiter, stretches and compresses the moons. Io has active volcanoes, and Europa and Ganymede,potentially,liquid oceans.

[Scientists] had expected to see cold, dead places, but right away they were blown away by their striking surfaces, said Christine McCarthy, lead author of the research, in the statement.

There was clearly some sort of tectonic activity things moving around and cracking. There were also places on Europa that look like melt-through or mushy ice.

The only way to have tectonics is through heat, and the only way to have heat in such a small object far away from the Sun is through gravitational force. Perhaps this research will bring us closer to understanding just how Europa’s ocean is maintained.

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Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/space/europa-might-be-hotter-previously-thought

Europa’s Giant Geysers Disappear

In December 2013, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope spotted evidence of water vapor venting off the south polar region of Jupiter’s icy moon Europa. The best explanation, researchers thought at the time, would be water plumes erupting off the moon’s surface; previous work has indicated the existence of an ocean under the icy crust.

Now, astronomers have made the startling announcement that those giant geysers — which may have spouted to an altitude of 201 kilometers — have mysteriously vanished. Follow-up observations with Hubble earlier this year showed no signs of the plumes, Space.com reports.

Researchers aren’t sure why they’ve vanished, though there are several possible ways to explain it. Perhaps like volcanoes on Earth, Europa’s water vapor geysers are sporadic; or perhaps the plumes are sometimes simply too small to see. 

Or maybe the plumes are only visible to Hubble at certain times. “It could be just the way that we use the auroral emissions coming from those plumes at the wavelengths of light that we use with Hubble,” Southwest Research Institute’s Kurt Retherford tells Space.com. These events depend on Jupiter’s plasma environment, and maybe Hubble spotted the plumes just as they were being lit up excited particles. 

Still… perhaps the geysers never existed in the first place, and Hubble’s 2012 observations were an artifact of some sort. Retherford thinks that’s unlikely, and his team will be looking for plumes on Europa again from November through April. 

Meanwhile, as far back as 2005, jets of water vapor have been spotted spewing off the surface of Saturn’s moon Enceladus by NASA’s Cassini orbiter. The plumes on these two moons have remarkably similar abundances of water vapor. But because Europa has a roughly 12 times stronger gravitational pull than Enceladus, the minus-40-degree-Celsius vapor for the most part doesn’t escape into space as it does on Enceladus. Rather, it falls back onto the surface.

[Via Space.com]


Read more: http://www.iflscience.com/space/where-have-europas-giant-geysers-gone