This artist’s rendering illustrates a conceptual design for a potential future mission to land a robotic probe on the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

 

Space scientists have been pinning their astrobiological hopes for a lander mission to Europa using political glue. Given the midterm elections, has the Europa lander project been put on ice?

As reported by FYI of the American Institute of Physics (AIP) and posted here with permission:

Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), who chairs the Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee, lost his election in his Houston-area district.

Life beyond Earth

Culberson is an enthusiastic proponent of science and space exploration, and, since taking over as subcommittee chair in 2014, he has channeled years of funding increases to NASA, which has included adding nearly $800 million to the annual budget of the Planetary Science Division.

Culberson’s support for NASA has been driven largely by his conviction in the inherent value of its mission, and he has hoped that, with proper support, the agency will succeed in finding evidence of life beyond the Earth.

Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) examining a Europa lander model during a visit to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Credit – NASA/JPL-Caltech via AIP

Accordingly, he has secured funding in recent budget cycles to advance two missions to Jupiter’s moon Europa. However, Culberson’s enthusiasm for space research was turned against him by his Democratic opponent, who accused him of not paying enough attention to Earth-bound problems such as the flooding from Hurricane Harvey.

Europa Clipper

There is agreement in the government that the Europa Clipper, which will perform multiple flybys, should be supported.

However, the Obama and Trump administrations have resisted Culberson’s push for a follow-on lander and an aggressive launch schedule for both missions.

A recent National Academies report also noted that the lander mission has not been properly vetted as a priority by the scientific community. Even in the minority, Culberson might have been a forceful advocate for his priorities. In his absence, momentum behind the lander could dissipate, and the fate of the budget increases he has marshalled for NASA remains to be seen.

Science agencies

Culberson’s subcommittee also has jurisdiction over the National Science Foundation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and National Institute of Standards and Technology.

In general, Culberson has been favorably disposed to those agencies, though the subcommittee has recommended cuts to certain programs. However, Ranking Member José Serrano (D-NY) and other subcommittee Democrats have also spoken positively of the need to fund science agencies robustly.

For the full FYI AIP report, go to:

https://www.aip.org/fyi/2018/2018-midterm-election-results-outlook-science-policy

For the Europa Lander Study 2016 Report, go to:

https://europa.nasa.gov/resources/58/europa-lander-study-2016-report/

 

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