by Damond Benningfield

FROM THE UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS McDONALD OBSERVATORY, AS HEARD ON KCBS RADIO WEEKDAYS @ 9:52 A.M., 7:35 P.M. & 2:52 A.M.

STARDATE 7/3/2104: Jupiter’s moon Europa is one of the most intriguing bodies in the solar system. Its icy crust appears to cover a global ocean that could be many miles deep. Heat from deep within Europa could produce fountains of mineral-rich hot water at the bottom of the ocean. That combination could make Europa’s ocean a comfortable home for life.

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A couple of months ago, NASA asked scientists and engineers to suggest missions to explore this fascinating moon. It’s the first step toward what could eventually be an orbiter or lander.

NASA frequently asks for proposals to explore the worlds of the solar system and beyond. Most of those proposals never make it off the ground, but a few eventually get funded and sent off into space. Even then, however, it generally takes years to develop an idea, build a craft, and send it on its way.

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In addition to the mission to Europa, NASA is also looking for proposals for ways to catch an asteroid and change its orbit. A robotic craft would push the asteroid into a new orbit beyond the Moon. The goal is to eventually send a crew of astronauts to explore the asteroid.

Of course, not every request for ideas results in a space mission. Many ideas never pan out — the technology may be too risky, or the mission too expensive. But the ones that eventually fly help extend our knowledge of the solar system and the big, wide universe beyond.

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We’ll talk about two especially hot mission ideas tomorrow.