NASA and the White House are asking Congress to bankroll a new intrastellar road trip to a destination that's sort of like the extraterrestrial Atlantis of our solar system -- Jupiter's intriguing moon, Europa.
On its surface, Europa appears to be an iced-over rock orbiting the biggest planet in our neighborhood and often getting nuked by Jupiter's radiation belt. However, it's believed that a subsurface ocean exists beneath the ice, kept liquid by a phenomenon called tidal flexing. Just last month, Hubble spotted evidence of a plume of water vapor at the moon's south pole.
This makes Europa, or at least its hidden ocean, one of the better places for finding evidence of life elsewhere in our solar system, be they microbes or the alien antagonist in the highly underrated "Europa Report."
On Tuesday, NASA released an overview of its $17 billion budget request for fiscal year 2015, which includes funds "for the formulation for a mission to Jupiter's moon, Europa," according to a statement from administrator Charles Bolden.
In recent years, NASA has been developing concepts for exploring Europa that include the launch of "clipper" that would flyby and gather data from above the moon, as well as a possible lander. The cost of the clipper mission was estimated (PDF) in 2012 at just under $2 billion, while the cost of a landing on Europa was pegged at $2.8 billion.
While the exact amount NASA is requesting Congress to approve for moving forward on a trip to Europa won't be known for a few more days, it's not likely to be anywhere near the full amount needed to launch the mission. The part of the budget request that includes the Europa mission is a $1.2 billion chunk for planetary science that includes other efforts to explore planetary bodies in our solar system, and it's not likely that Europa will get a big share of that amount, given the recent (not unjustified) fascination with Mars and asteroids.
But the fact that Europa is part of NASA's official pitch for its approach to the future of space exploration is progress for anyone interested in getting to know what might be swimming around below those layers of radiation, ice, and who knows what else. Still, if NASA wants to reach Europa first, they may want to hurry, because the son of famed explorer and diver Jacques Cousteau is also eager to take a dip in those alien waters. No, seriously.