NASA awards SpaceX launch services contract for Europa Clipper mission
Just days after successfully completing a test on the Super Heavy rocket booster, SpaceX has another reason to celebrate. NASA has awarded the private space exploration company a launch services contract worth $178 million. Come October 2024, SpaceX will be entrusted with launching the Europa Clipper mission using a Falcon Heavy rocket, the Super Heavy's smaller sibling. Here are more details.
SpaceX also won the contract for 2024's Artemis lunar mission
In recent years, SpaceX has ferried numerous cargo payloads and astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) using its near-perfect reusable rocket system and Crew Dragon capsules developed under NASA's Commercial Crew Program. In April, SpaceX was also awarded a $2.9 billion contract for NASA's Artemis mission. However, the contract was suspended after rival bidders Blue Origin and Dynetics objected to SpaceX's selection.
Clipper's mission entails scouting Europa's surface for signs of life
NASA explained that the Europa Clipper mission will conduct a detailed survey of Jupiter's moon called Europa in April 2030. Using scientific instruments, the mission will investigate if the moon's icy surface can sustain life. The mission entails gathering high-resolution images, detecting geological activity, measuring the thickness of the icy shell, searching for subsurface lakes, and determining the depth and salinity of Europa's ocean.
Spacecraft will execute 50 flybys in elliptical orbit around Europa
The Europa Clipper spacecraft will be launched using a Falcon Heavy rocket from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The $4.25 billion-worth spacecraft will fly past Europa approximately 50 times to collect the requisite data. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California is developing this mission in partnership with the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland.
Using Falcon Heavy mandates performing speed-boosting flybys of Earth, Mars
To date, Falcon Heavy has flown three times. Most recently, it launched a mission for the US Space Test Program. Using the commercial rocket will reportedly require the Clipper to perform speed-boosting flybys of Mars and Earth in February 2025 and December 2026, respectively.
NASA's space launch system was much costlier than SpaceX's proposition
Although a $178 million launch services contract might seem expensive, the White House estimated that using NASA's own Space Launch System (SLS) rocket would cost the agency $2 billion over and above the $1 billion-worth modifications to SLS for the Europa Clipper mission.
Congress also directed NASA to conceptualize a lander for Europa
NASA did not reveal the identities of other parties who bid for the Europa Clipper launch services contract alongside SpaceX. Space.com reported that Congress has also directed the agency to develop a lander mission concept for Europa. Meanwhile, the Artemis mission in 2024 will demonstrate the Falcon Heavy's launch capabilities first, almost like a precursor to the Europa Clipper mission later that year.