Europa Decision Delivers Crushing Blow To NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS)

These days, NASA deciding to launch one of their future missions on a commercial rocket is hardly a surprise. After all, the agency is now willing to fly their astronauts on boosters and spacecraft built and operated by SpaceX. Increased competition has made getting to space cheaper and easier than ever before, so it’s only logical that NASA would reap the benefits of a market they helped create.

So the recent announcement that NASA’s Europa Clipper mission will officially fly on a commercial launch vehicle might seem like more of the same. But this isn’t just any mission. It’s a flagship interplanetary probe designed to study and map Jupiter’s moon Europa in unprecedented detail, and will serve as a pathfinder for a future mission that will actually touch down on the moon’s frigid surface. Due to the extreme distance from Earth and the intense radiation of the Jovian system, it’s considered one of the most ambitious missions NASA has ever attempted.

With no margin for error and a total cost of more than $4 billion, the fact that NASA trusts a commercially operated booster to carry this exceptionally valuable payload is significant in itself. But perhaps even more importantly, up until now, Europa Clipper was mandated by Congress to fly on NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS). This was at least partly due to the incredible power of the SLS, which would have put the Clipper on the fastest route towards Jupiter. But more pragmatically, it was also seen as a way to ensure that work on the Shuttle-derived super heavy-lift rocket would continue at a swift enough pace to be ready for the mission’s 2024 launch window.

But with that deadline fast approaching, and engineers feeling the pressure to put the final touches on the spacecraft before it gets mated to the launch vehicle, NASA appealed to Congress for the flexibility to fly Europa Clipper on a commercial rocket. The agency’s official line is that they can’t spare an SLS launch for the Europa mission while simultaneously supporting the Artemis Moon program, but by allowing the Clipper to fly on another rocket in the 2021 Consolidated Appropriations Act, Congress effectively removed one of the only justifications that still existed for the troubled Space Launch System.

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PUFFER: A Smartphone-Sized Planetary Explorer

Is there room on Mars and Europa for cute robots? [NASA] — collaborating with [UC Berkley] and [Distant Focus Corporation] — have the answer: PUFFER, a robot inspired by origami.

PUFFER — which stands for Pop-Up Flat-Folding Explorer Robot — is able to sense objects and adjust its profile accordingly by ‘folding’ itself into a smaller size to fit itself into nooks and crannies. It was designed so multiple PUFFERs could reside inside a larger craft and then be deployed to scout otherwise inaccessible terrain. Caves, lava tubes and shaded rock overhangs that could shelter organic material are prime candidates for exploration. The groups of PUFFERs will send the collected info back to the mother ship to be relayed to mother Earth.

We’ve embedded the video of the bot folding it’s wheels down to pass a low-bridge. You can get a view of the wider scope of functionality for the collection of demos on the project page.

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Robot Dances On The Icy Ceiling

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is working on a robot for the exploration of Europa’s oceans. A big problem is the oceans are under a permanent ice ceiling. JPL is making that ceiling a feature with a robot that dances, okay wheels, on the ceiling.

The Buoyant Rover for Under-Ice Exploration (BRUIE) is, as the name says, buoyant so it floats against the ice ceiling. Two large paddle wheels allow it to drive along the ceiling.

Andy Klesh from JPL with BRUIE
Andy Klesh from JPL with BRUIE

In 2012 they took an earlier version to Barrow, Alaska for testing under the ice. While the temperatures encountered there may not match those of Europa’s frozen methane [Europa is water, also – Rud] it’s still a challenging environment for man and robot. One of the challenges for the arctic exploration team was the need to test when the ice was thin enough to make a hole. They had to proceed judiciously to avoid falling in.

Recently they tested a newer version rover the California Science Center aquarium, giving new meaning to the phrase “swimming with the fishes.” Andy Klesh, principal investigator for the rover at JPL and volunteer diver at the science center accompanied BRUIE during the testing. Sometime in the future they hope to turn BRUIE loose in a lake where it can explore autonomously.

Fortunately the arctic team didn’t encounter any polar bears, another possible risk. When the rover makes it to Europa it’s unlikely to encounter an extra-terrestrial equivalent.

Video coverage after the break.

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