NASA has made the decision to only consider commercial vehicles for the launch of its Europa Clipper mission. The move away from NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) could save the agency over $1.6 billion.
The first indication that NASA was moving away from the use of SLS came as part of the agency’s fiscal year 2021 appropriations bill. Enacted in December, the agency was granted relief on its requirement to utilise SLS enabling it to consider commercial options.
In a January 24 memo from NASA’s Planetary Mission Program Office, agency personnel were told to “immediately cease efforts to maintain SLS compatibility” for the Europa Clipper mission.
Finally, during a February 10 presentation of NASA’s Outer Planets Assessment Group, project leaders provided additional clarity regarding the decision stating that they would only be considering commercial vehicles for the launch of the mission.
The move has largely been seen as a positive step forward for not only the Europa Clipper mission but for many others that could benefit from the funding freed up by the decision.
Currently, a single SLS launch is projected to cost over $2 billion. The leading commercial contender for the mission is the SpaceX Falcon Heavy.
Over the last two years, the agency has awarded two missions to SpaceX for launch aboard Falcon Heavy vehicles. Although the awards vary widely, the largest cost the agency $331.8 million for the launch of its first two lunar Gateway space station modules.
NASA may, as a result, save more than $1.6 billion by selecting to launch the Europa Clipper mission aboard a commercial launch vehicle.
The launch of the Europa Clipper mission is currently expected to be launched within a 21-day window in October 2024. Following flybys of Mars in February 2025 and Earth in December 2026, the spacecraft would enter orbit around Jupiter in April 2030.