NIAC: Exploring subsurface oceans – “Doing the hard thing”

Over fifty years ago John Kennedy articulated one of the most important reasons for exploring space:

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills. . . “

NASA has a program which seeks out the things which are not easy, which are hard and which organize and measure the bet of our energies and skills: NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concept program (NIAC).

Earlier this month NIAC awarded a Phase I grants to several projects, giving each $100,000 and nine months to prove the feasibility of some aspect of the proposal.

One of the Phase I awardees was a project submitted by Dr. Masahiro Ono, a research technologist at JPL. Dr. Ono proposes exploring the oceans of Enceladus and Europa using a lander with three separate modules.
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Tide swinging towards Europa’s ocean in search for life

Despite the fact that since the 1990’s Europa has been considered the most likely candidate for life in our solar system, NASA has had no formal organized effort to pursue its exploration until recently.

While President Obama’s budget for 2013 and 2014 had no provision for Europa exploration Congress appropriated $120 million for the effort.

When the President’s budget asked for $15 million in 2015, Congress appropriated $175 million.

The Europa mission is benefitting from the efforts of Congressman John Culberson, Republican-Texas, whose district happens to include the Johnson Space Center. The House Appropriations Subcommittee has jurisdiction over NASA’s budget and Culberson is its chairman.

Culberson’s efforts are not just pork barrel politics though. There is wide spread belief in the scientific community that there is strong possibility that life can be found on Europa. Europa is certainly the most promising place to look.

Consider the findings of a joint effort of a dozen government agencies engaged in space exploration and published in August 2011 in a paper titled “Science Potential from a Europa Lander”:

– The presence of water: Europa has an ocean
– Europa has a source of energy to create and maintain complex molecules: the energy source is the gravitational influence of Jupiter which causes Europa’s iron core to heat and in turn
causes significant movement in the ocean
– Europa has the basic chemical elements needed for life as they are found throughout the solar system.
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