NASA has announced its selection of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy to launch its mission to Jupiter’s moon, Europa. This mission, called the Europa Clipper, will probe the secrets of Europa’s icy shell and the liquid ocean that resides under that shell during 50 flybys of the moon. It will also scout for likely locations to land a future lander that will search for possible life under the icy surface of Europa.
Congress had previously required NASA to launch Europa Clipper on the Space Launch System (SLS). However, due to delays involved in the development of the rocket, Congress was forced to change its tune and allow for launch on a different rocket if the SLS is unavailable for Europa Clipper’s expected launch date in October 2024 from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
NASA’s Planetary Missions Program Office issued a memo further clarifying the launch situation by telling Europa Clipper’s development team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to plan for a commercial launch. The contract to launch Europa Clipper is worth approximately $178 million to SpaceX.
The modified plan to send Europa Clipper to Jupiter orbit includes flybys of Earth and Mars to pick up speed to allow for the reduced launch power of the Falcon Heavy when compared to the SLS. It will arrive at its destination in April 2030.
Europa is the smallest of Jupiter’s Galilean moons, the four moons that were first documented by Galileo Galilei. This moon is especially interesting to scientists because it has a liquid ocean that contains twice as much water as all of Earth’s oceans. Under the ocean is a rocky mantle and iron core. If Europa has organic compounds, it may also have life, although that is not necessarily a guarantee.
Europa Clipper will look for conditions that might be conducive to life, including studies of possible geological activity and chemistry. Data from its scientific instruments will also help scientists refine their estimates of the depth and salinity of its subsurface ocean. Current estimates place the thickness of the ice shell at 10 to 15 miles (15 to 25 kilometers) and the depth of the salt water ocean at 40 to 100 miles (60 to 150 kilometers).
Europa Clipper’s scientific instruments include tools that are designed to measure Europa’s magnetic field, study the chemistry of its surface and any possible plumes, and study its gravity field. Data from these instruments will assist with planning for a future lander that is tentatively slated to be launched in 2027.
SpaceX’s launch vehicles have been especially attractive to NASA for their low cost. The space agency has also chosen SpaceX to launch the first components of the Lunar Gateway, which it regards as a critical component of a sustainable crewed presence on the Moon. SpaceX is also serving as a subcontractor that will launch lunar landers for NASA contractors like Firefly Aerospace, Astronautic, and Intuitive Machines. SpaceX has a contract with NASA to develop a Starship-derived lunar lander of its own, though that is currently on pause due to challenges from competitors Blue Origin and Dynetics.