The proposed mission to Titan is one of two competing proposals. This plan would see an orbiter take measurements of the Jupiter moon and then launch a lander, which will make a soft landing via balloon on Titan's liquid methane ethane lakes.  (Source: NASA/ESA)

A competing proposal would send probes to Europa and Ganymede. The Europa probe, designed by NASA would search for life in the ocean beneath the moon's icey surface.   (Source: NASA/ESA)
An expensive and ambitious mission will give the space community an unprecedented glimpse at either Jupiter or Saturn's moons

NASA and the European Space Agency are choosing between two ambitious proposals, each costing billions of dollars, which would launch in around 2020.  The proposals would bring the search for life to the outer reaches of our solar system, with Jupiter and Saturn's moons being the two targets.

One proposal would send a balloon-dropped lander to float on the hydrocarbon lakes of Saturn's moon Titan.  Another mission would see two separate orbiters peek at Europa and Ganymede, two of Jupiter's icy moons suspected of having water under their surface from geothermal activity.

Titan, Europa, and Ganymede are all considered potential locations for life, albeit such findings being unlikely.  At the very least, scientists hope to find organic chemicals and hot water to give a glimpse at the conditions that could have made life on Earth.

A "winner" will be announced in February by the respective space agencies' two top science executives, Ed Weiler (NASA) and David Southwood (ESA).

The Titan Saturn System Mission (TSSM), if selected, would build on the discoveries of the ongoing NASA/ESA Cassini-Huygens mission.  Titan and Enceladus would be the top targets for the multi-instrument orbiter.  The orbiter would dip into Titan's atmosphere and the plumes at Enceladus to sample their chemistry.  Enceladus is frozen on the surface, but icy jets discovered by Cassini have led scientists to suspect that it may have a liquid ocean beneath its surface. 

The orbiter would dispatch a balloon-slowed lander, which would dip down in Titan's lakes of liquid ethane and methane.  The lander would continue to take more readings, checking out the composition of the lakes.

The Europa Jupiter System Mission (EJSM) proposal would send a mission to Europa and Ganymede.  Europa has long thought to have a liquid ocean beneath its surface, and scientists believe it’s on a larger scale than that of Enceladus.  Under the plan, NASA would dispatch the Jupiter Europa Orbiter (JEO) to check out the moon, while the ESA would investigate Ganymede with the Jupiter Ganymede Orbiter (JGO). 

The NASA probe would take on Europa as strong shielding is needed for the delicate electronic sensors to survive the radioactive environment of the moon.  Both probes would complete their missions by crashing on the moons, continuing to take data, similar to the recent Indian Earth-moon probe.

The Paris based ESA has already set aside 650M € ($843M USD) for a large scale mission.  The U.S. is expected to contribute even more, particularly if the EJSM proposal is selected.  The winner will have to compete with funding against various closer-to-home projects.  Among these projects is the next-generation X-ray telescope, known as the International X-ray Observatory (Ixo), and the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (Lisa) mission to study gravitational waves in space.

Peter Falkner, who leads the planetary exploration studies section at ESA describes, "The [planetary missions] will go to down-selection with Ixo and Lisa; and then - under the current plan - two will be selected for definition phase in parallel, still in competition, and out of that will emerge a winner that will go forward to implementation."

The projected launch would be in 2020 and the probe(s) would be carried aboard an Atlas heavy-lift Rocket.  If the EJSM mission is selected, the ESA would use an Ariane rocket to launch its probe.  The probes would whip around Venus to pick up speed, and would reach Saturn/Jupiter in approximately 9 years (2029).  The proposed NASA orbiter would weigh 1.6 tons.

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