Thursday, February 19, 2009

All These Worlds are Yours, Except Europa

Cue, "Also sprach Zarathustra."

Funny how real life follows art, isn't it? In the movies, Europa is placed off limits by the guardians who seek to protect whatever is swimming in the ocean below the icy surface. Here in our world, $3,8B and 17 years of development will keep us away.

Much like the bloated Rube Goldberg machine called Mars Science Laboratory, the minions are designing an almost six ton monster that will launch in 2020 and go into orbit in 2026.


The real mission, landing on Europa and submarining under the ice to look for whales, is still further off. No wonder school kids don't care anymore. When considering this kind of planning, footprints on Mars starts to look relatively close.

Cue, "Alan Stern."


Anonymous said...

The chances that this will ever launch are pretty small; the chances it will come in at less than 2x the expected budget are even smaller...

Anonymous said...

I suppose you have a cheaper/faster method of getting to Europa orbit?

The way I see it, that's the best we can do with chemical propulsion.
You call that yawn? Fine, I call the LEO human racetrack double-yawn.

It's always easy to complain about these things, but I'm all ears as to how YOU'D cram a lander into the spacecraft for any reasonably low cost. Because, after all, it's all about cost - otherwise you wouldn't mention the 3.8 bln price tag spread out over 20 years.

Anonymous said...

Cost is as much a function of time as it is mass and technology. A program that runs 3-4 years will be cheaper than one that takes 16. You just don't have the time to spend the money.

Throwing all the eggs in one orbiter basket is not the answer either. Remember Galileo? Mars Polar Lander?

Six years to Europa chemically is not the issue. Its the 11 years to get to launch that is absurd.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I'll concede 11 years of development is a long time. But you can't exactly go into a store and buy all those instruments off the shelf, they need to be designed, built, tested and tested again on the ground. All that is bound to take a lot of time, paperwork and money. Such is the reality of things. They don't call these missions Flagships for nothing...

We've seen how the Faster, Better, Cheaper paradigm turned out after all. I'd rather have an expensive mission that ultimately works than several cheap ones that fail.

Besides, with cheaper and lighter missions the spacecraft bus is relatively a greater part of the overall mass.

Anonymous said...

Most people don't appreciate what makes Europa so hard is the shielding for the electronics in the crazy Jovian belts. Either way you go, chem or EP, it makes that payload mass go up and drives everything else.

Those watcher guys didn't have to send us a message through a malfunctioning computer, they just put the destination smack dab in a really hard place.

Anonymous said...

What is the launch and transit strategy for these missions? I would suspect it is yet another mission that is trying to stretch the very limits of a single launch and tries to scrounge delta v out of every 1960's vintage propulsion system that they use. The mass of every last bolt is stripped to the bone in a desperate attempt to meet almost absurd mass budgets. This means we end up with extensive development durations, protracted missions, limited science and still have a huge cost and risk.

There is finally going to come a time for a launch architecture instead of a single shot process where everyone does their own thing with highly restricted results. This means that we develop simple depots in at least LEO but hopefully L2 as well that can serve as departure points for these high energy missions. With depots, propellant transfer and propulsive burns at perigee we can move science spacecraft that have high payload and high propulsive capability that can allow short transit times and decent amounts of maneuver in the horrendous gravity wells of Jupiter and Saturn. We can do this without having to build horrendously expensive single-purpose stages. It just seemed like 7-10 km/sec of available delta V already emplaced at L2 could be useful to a jupiter scientist. Maybe we can skip the lithium cooled reactors for a while.

Of course this requires an investment- but it is just that- an investment that smoothes the path of all future users. The size of the investment is far, far less than the billions we are talking about here for a single one-off mission. It is based on already existing technology- we just have to make half an effort. It will pay far larger dividends than trying to shave 30 grams off of a helium bottle on the Europa orbiter.

Once made we can actually deliver a propulsion system to Jupiter with an Isp greater than 320 seconds. The doors to lower C3 places like Mars would be flung wide open. We could even afford some radiation shielding eh? Maybe even cryogenic propulsion systems.

Just some thoughts on how we might proceed differently. Fire at will.