SpaceX's Falcon Heavy to launch Clipper mission to Jupiter's moon Europa
Lured by a vast subsurface ocean and the potential for some form of life, NASA has long had Jupiter's moon Europa in its sights for scientific study, and the agency has now officially settled on a vehicle to kick off the forthcoming mission. It announced over the weekend that SpaceX's Falcon Heavy will be used to launch the Clipper spacecraft, which is expected to lift off in late 2024.
NASA officially confirmed the Clipper mission to Europa in 2019, and has proceeded to develop and test the spacecraft along with the instruments it will carry. Europa is Jupiter's fourth largest moon and intrigue around the icy body has grown on the back of studies revealing stronger and stronger evidence of a salty subsurface ocean, along with plumes erupting from the surface and the presence of water vapor.
It is thought that this subsurface ocean may be twice the volume of all Earth's oceans combined and is therefore considered among the likeliest places in the solar system that life may exist, albeit in microbial form. To investigate this possibility, the Clipper spacecraft will orbit Jupiter and then make the necessary moves to fly by Europa a total of 45 times over the course of three years.
This will enable Clipper to scan almost the entirety of Europa, using thermal and high-res cameras, spectrometers, ice-penetrating radar, plasma sensors and other instruments to gather data on the moon and relay it to Earth in between flybys. A radiation shield made of aluminum alloy will protect Clipper's electronics from Jupiter's harsh radiation.
Clipper had originally been slated for lift-off using NASA's under-development Space Launch System at the direction of congress. The agency, however, had angled for a commercial launch vehicle to kick off the mission, citing lower costs and better planning efficiency, and then got the green light to explore that option earlier this year, as reported by Spacenews.
On Saturday, NASA announced that it had awarded SpaceX a US$178-million contract to launch the Clipper spacecraft with its Falcon Heavy rocket. This is the most powerful rocket in operation today, and will also serve as the launch vehicle for NASA's Viper mission to hunt for ice on our own Moon in 2023. Clipper, meanwhile, is scheduled for launch in October of 2024.