NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) has recommended that the agency delay a lander mission to one of Jupiter’s moons. The current mission timetable mandated by Congress requires NASA to launch the mission aboard a Space Launch System (SLS) rocket by no later than 2025.
A report published on May 29 by the agency’s OIG titled Management of NASA’s Europa Mission outlines a number of challenges facing the mission. The report highlighted budgetary concerns, an infeasible deadline, competition for skilled technical staff, and the uncertainty around the development of the upgraded SLS as contributing factors for the OIG’s recommendation.
In 2013, Congress appropriated $2 billion for the Europa mission, $1.4 billion more than the agency had requested. They mandated that NASA launch two missions: a fly-by orbiter known as the Europa Clipper and a lander mission. It was recommended that the missions be launched aboard SLS rockets by no later than 2023 for the orbiter and 2025 for the lander.
Although the report also raised concerns about the feasibility of a 2023 launch of the Clipper mission, the lander attracted the majority of their concern.
The first major challenge highlighted by the report is the shortage of key personnel. The project will be competing with five other major projects at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) including the Clipper. This has put a significant strain on JPL’s personnel resources which would likely be inadequate for the development of the lander. The report added that even if personnel was not a problem, by examining other similar NASA robotic missions, it was clear the earliest possible launch date would be late 2026.
Another major concern was the likelihood that the upgraded Block 1B version of the SLS rocket would not be ready in time. In March, an updated NASA budget proposal released by the White House cut funding for the Block 1B SLS effectively shelving it indefinitely. Currently, the Europa lander is being designed to exclusively launch aboard the Block 1B SLS almost ensuring its fate is tied to the albatross that is the Space launch system. The report recommended allocating funding to study alternative launch services like the SpaceX Falcon Heavy.
Finally, the report recommends that the development of the lander be delayed until the Clipper mission is underway. This will allow engineers to utilise data collected by the orbiter to not only design the lander but also to better select the scientific instruments it will be equipped with.