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A mission to explore Jovian moon Europa, considered one of the solar system's better candidates to host life thanks to its possession of a liquid water ocean, is now in NASA's sights after the US government last week signed off $US75m in funds to scope a future visit.

The money was allocated in the “Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2013’’ (PDF) passed by Congress last week.

The Act says the cash “... shall be for pre-formulation and/or formulation activities for a mission that meets the science goals outlined for the Jupiter Europa mission in the most recent planetary decadal survey”.

That study (another PDF) nominates a “Jupiter Europa Orbiter” (JEO) as the second-highest priority “large” mission for the years 2013-2022, behind the Mars Astrobiology ExplorerCacher (MAX-C), a $3.5bn attempt to send two rovers to Mars and recover samples for transport back to earth.

The JEO will be even more costly, at $4.7bn. Both it and MAX-C will need extra funding for NASA to get them off the ground. Indeed, the study says MAX-C should only proceed if its current budget can be trimmed by a billion dollars, while JEO will ascend “only if changes to both the mission design and the NASA planetary budget make it affordable without eliminating any other recommended missions.”

Which sounds rather grim given the USA's fiscal woes.

Better news can be found in the decadal survey's point that “The first step in understanding the potential of the outer solar system as an abode for life is a Europa mission with the goal of confirming the presence of an interior ocean, characterizing the satellite’s ice shell, and understanding its geological history.” Europa fans may also be cheering that MAX-C didn' get a mention in the appropriations bill.

NASA's not saying just what it plans to do with the $75m, but the decadal survey says the “key challenges” for JEO are “Radiation, mass, power [and] instruments” so it seems safe to presume the cash will help to address those issues. ®

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