A bold life-hunting mission to the surface of Jupiter's ocean-harboring moon Europa was shut out yet again in the 2019 federal budget proposal, but NASA still aims to see it fly.
The budget request, which was released Monday (Feb. 12), allocates $19.9 billion to NASA in 2019 and lays out some details about the agency's plan to return humans to the moon — a key focus that the Trump administration announced this past December.
The request axes five Earth-science missions and one high-profile astrophysics project, the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope. It continues funding for high-profile planetary projects such as the Mars 2020 rover and Europa Clipper, a $2 billion multiple-flyby mission to the icy moon scheduled to launch in the 2020s — but, just like last year, there's no money for the companion Europa lander that NASA is developing. [Photos: Europa, Mysterious Icy Moon of Jupiter]
Still, NASA has every intention of seeing that lander fly, based on NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot's remarks.
During his State of NASA address at the agency's Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama on Monday, Lightfoot took a rhetorical trip to 2030, imagining what NASA will have accomplished by then. Among the envisioned achievements: "We will have explored Europa and be well on our way to landing a probe there and possibly found biological evidence of life elsewhere in our universe."
In late 2015, Congress directed NASA to study the possibility of adding a lander to the Clipper mission (whose chief task involves investigating the life-supporting potential of Europa's buried ocean). The agency has now determined that the best route involves launching the lander separately.
The lander remains a concept, not an officially approved mission, but work on its development continues. The current thinking envisions a battery-powered spacecraft with perhaps five science instruments that would operate for about three weeks on the frigid, radiation-blasted Europan surface.
It's unclear how much the lander would cost, but estimates put it in the same general price range as the Europa Clipper.
The 2019 federal budget request is just a proposal; budgets must be approved by Congress to be enacted. So things could, and very well might, change.