22 min Space NASA signs contract with SpaceX to launch mission to study moon Europa

22 min Space NASA signs contract with SpaceX to launch mission to study moon Europa

All About NASA

View more

Last week, NASA announced a $178 million contract with SpaceX to launch the Europa Clipper mission, which will study Jupiter’s moon Europa. If all goes according to plan by the space agency, the mission will be launched by a Falcon Heavy rocket in October 2024, reaching Jupiter in 2030. Afterwards, the orbiter will spend four years (Earth years, it is noteworthy) studying the moon Europa, when over 50 overflights.

  • More evidence found that the surface of the moon Europa releases jets of water
  • Europe or Enceladus: which moon is more likely to harbor microbial life?
  • Scientists want NASA to also send probes to Enceladus, Saturn’s moon

The Europa Clipper mission was made official in 2019 and will be launched to study this moon in detail, which holds a large ocean of liquid water beneath the frozen layer that surrounds it. The mission has an orbiter equipped with a beautiful set of scientific instruments that will be used to investigate if, after all, Europa has the necessary conditions for the occurrence of life.

The moon Europa (Image: Reproduction/NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute)

The new contract represents a definition for launch, something that has been unclear for some time: initially, the United States Congress instructed NASA to launch Clipper with the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, the giant vehicle that the space agency follows developing to take people and cargo to different destinations in deep space. The problem is that, in addition to the extremely high costs, the development of SLS has already gone through several delays. As the rocket’s first missions will be dedicated to the Artemis program, it was unclear when the vehicle could be used by the Europa Clipper.

It wasn’t until Congress presented the fiscal year 2021 proposal that the space agency had the flexibility to select a commercial vehicle, which would be an alternative to launch the mission. In the end, Congress accepted the change due to possible compatibility issues between Clipper and SLS — so much so that the US House of Representatives said that SLS could be used for the launch only if it was available and the reviews confirmed it. that the vehicle was suitable for launch.

The Falcon Heavy has flown successfully three times, and the last release took place in 2019 (Image: Playback/SpaceX)

After budget approval, NASA changed the mission design to prepare it for launch with a commercial vehicle — and due to the technical requirements of the mission and the vehicles available to fulfill them, the chances of NASA selecting a vehicle from the SpaceX for launch were high. By choosing to use the Falcon Heavy, the space agency says it could save more than $1.5 billion compared to SLS costs, but it will have some changes to the mission’s schedule.

If launch were done with the SLS, the spacecraft could travel straight to Jupiter, and it would take just three years after launch to reach the gas giant. In the case of the Falcon Heavy, the spacecraft will need gravitational assistance from Earth and Mars and will reach Jupiter five years after launch. Anyway, this new launch on behalf of SpaceX joins other future missions that NASA has already closed with the company, such as the launch of the first modules of the Gateway station.