Early Wednesday, Congress released a proposed 2016 budget that sets aside a healthy $19.3 billion for NASA—nearly $1 billion more than the Obama administration requested for the space agency. The funds, however, come with a caveat: NASA must put a lander on Europa, the formidable moon of Jupiter that might just be our best bet for finding alien life.
Europa is considered a possible site for alien life because it is covered in sub-surface ocean, and scientists generally look at liquid water as a good indicator of habitability. That doesn't mean Europa is a friendly place. Ars Technica describes the moon as a "nightmare glacier," adding:
The moon literally creaks as Jupiter’s bulk rends its frozen surface in deep crevasses, pushing and pulling the ice upward and downward by tens of meters every few days. And with only a very tenuous atmosphere, it is so very cold: -210 degrees Celsius.
NASA has been long planning to send a mission to examine Europa, but putting a lander on the moon is another thing altogether. Even orbiting Europa is dangerous, because its bathed in harmful radiation from Jupiter.
Ars Technica reported back in November, however, that a NASA team was secretly considering how to put sensitive instruments on Europa. That team presented their findings to a powerful ally, House Appropriations subcommittee chairman John Culberson. The Republican congressman decides NASA's budget, and is obsessed with Europa. In discussing the budget, he's billed himself as an advocate for the Europa mission, claiming, "Until now Europa has had no advocate… NASA headquarters was prepared to let the Europa mission die. But I have always believed there is life on other worlds, and I have wanted to have a hand in helping to discover life on other worlds.”
Others have also praised Congress's commitment to NASA in 2016. The Planetary Society lauded the budget, adding that the money allotted to Planetary Science Division (which includes the Europa mission) "is just a fantastic number."
Others, however, are less pleased about the prospect of sending a probe to Europa in 2022. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told Ars Technica back in November that, “My scientific community, the people who do mission planning, say we need to go and do a little research with the first mission to Europa to determine whether that’s a place we want to send a lander."
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.