The mission, called the Europa Clipper, is designed to fly over Jupiter’s moon Europa 45 times, approaching up to 16 miles above its surface. Scientists believe the moon hides a global ocean under its icy crust and that alien life could thrive deep within it.
Nasa announcement On Friday, he set a date for the mission and awarded the $ 178 million launch contract to SpaceX. Now, Europa Clipper is expected to take off aboard the company’s Falcon Heavy rocket in October 2024.
The main objective of Europa Clipper is to determine if Europa could accommodate life. It aims to take high-resolution images of the moon’s surface, plot the composition and thickness of its icy crust, search for lakes below the surface, and measure the depth and salinity of the ocean below.
The spacecraft could even fly through plumes of water vapor that cross the ice of Europe, as these are known to peak more than 100 miles above the surface. This water appears to come from the ocean below, and it may contain signs of life.
The reason Europe can keep water in a liquid state is because it follows an oval-shaped orbit around Jupiter. The gravity of the giant planet stretches and relaxes the moon, and this friction heats the deep underground salt water of Europe, keeping it liquid. The heat from this process could also allow the moon to host deep-water ecosystems.
SpaceX becomes a NASA favorite
SpaceX, the Elon Musk rocket company founded in 2002, does not have a mission to study other planets. But it’s about launching things for NASA, and the agency is giving the company more and more opportunities to do so.
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft transported NASA astronauts to the International Space Station last year. This was the first time the United States had launched its own astronauts since the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011. SpaceX now regularly transports astronauts to and from the space station.
In April, NASA awarded SpaceX a contract to turn its project into development Spaceship megarocket in a lunar lander. The agency said Starship is expected to land astronauts on the moon in 2024 (although that timeline may be unrealistic). It would be the first human moon landing since the end of the Apollo missions in 1972.
decision raised challenges competing rocket makers Blue Origin and Dynetics since the original plan was for NASA to select two of the three companies for the lunar lander contracts. The protests forced NASA to order SpaceX to stop work on the lunar lander.
SpaceX also failed to win its new Europa Clipper contract without a competition. According to Eric Berger, senior space writer for Ars Technica, Congress has spent years urging NASA to launch the mission aboard its own Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. But lawmakers eventually gave in due to delays in the development of the launch system, its high cost, and a recent technical glitch that would require $ 1 billion to fix, Berger reported.
According to Berger, NASA could save nearly $ 2 billion by launching the mission aboard Falcon Heavy instead of SLS.