In what may be the death knell for NASA’s project to bring a distant moon closer to Earth, members of Congress are showing signs they won’t approve funding for what they call “a costly and complex” distraction from the more pressing issues of a stagnant economy and joblessness.
The project calls for shooting into space a giant stainless-steel harpoon attached to 600 million kilometers of braided carbon nanotubes. The harpoon itself would be 1500 meters long, about twice the height of Burj Khalifa, currently the tallest building in the world. Assuming the harpoon was aimed well, it would take around six years to arrive at Europa — the smallest of Jupiter’s four moons — where it would plunge through the icy surface and embed itself.
Europa would then be pulled toward the earth with an enormous winch constructed near Cape Canaveral in Florida. Once Europa reached Earth’s orbit, astronauts would travel to the harpoon’s impact site and remove it using standard welding tools. Europa would then be a permanent fixture in our orbit, allowing scientists to make frequent visits — which could be very interesting, as it might contain life near undersea vents, according to some scientists.
The first sign of congressional opposition came when members of the Subcommittee on Science and Space demanded to know why six years were needed for the harpoon to reach Europa. They noted that the New Horizons spacecraft, launched in 2006, passed Jupiter after only 13 months.
“New Horizons was free of tubing and harnesses, which meant it could use a Hohmann transfer orbit, thereby speeding up its journey,” said Patricia Brown, head engineer of the project. “This uses a planet’s gravitational pull to slingshot a spacecraft, in effect, on a predetermined path.”
Brown said this would not be possible with the giant harpoon because the carbon nanotubes could get tangled, effectively turning Earth into a giant yo-yo.
“We would get very dizzy,” she said, “and this would lead to the Earth’s inhabitants stumbling around and saying ‘whoa whoa whoa.’”
Florida Senator Bill Nelson, chairman of the subcommittee, was unconvinced by Brown’s explanation.
“Can’t you come up with some sort of spring-loaded spooling device for the tubing, so that we could use this ‘slingshot theory’ and make the voyage shorter and cheaper?” he said. “Like a reel. I mean, I have one on my fishing rod. And my vacuum cleaner. Aren’t you guys supposed to the best and the brightest?”
A decision on whether to approve funding for the project is expected next week. Most observers say there is little chance the senators will agree, due to the growing budget deficit and criticism that the space agency has failed to explain to the public why it would be “so effing cool” to have two moons.
NASA — an agency used to getting a quick sign-off from Congress in funding matters — might have to find another way to study Europa, such as reverting to an alternative plan. One of these is to send ten lucky reality-show contestants to the distant moon to take photographs and analyze surface samples, as well as have on-camera trysts and scripted arguments about who gets to sleep in which pod.
Officials in the space program are said to be considering other, more cost-effective options that might win over reluctant senators. One of these suggests replacing the expensive harpoon with Seattle’s Space Needle, which would work “almost as well.” Another option would be to build thousands of little rockets that could be sent to Europa in a mother ship. These rockets would fix themselves to one side of Europa before igniting and pushing the moon — which is a little smaller than Earth’s moon — out of its orbit, sending it on a course toward Earth, where it would eventually be caught in a huge carbon nanofiber object designed to look like an apple basket.
In order to avoid adding billions of dollars to the budget for millions of additional miles of nanotubes, the harpoon would be launched so that it would reach Europa in September of 2022, the next time Jupiter will be relatively close to Earth, around 375 million miles away.
California Senator Barbara Boxer, another member of the subcommittee, worries that by 2022, the technology to bring Europa close to earth will be obsolete. There might be newer, cheaper ways to study the solar system, she said.
“Who knows?” she said. “By that time, we might very well be able to teleport ourselves to other galaxies, even, just by the power of positive thinking. Or maybe we’ll even be able to recreate our very own Europa with a large 3D printer. 2022 is an awfully long time away.”