NASA has selected to launch its $4 billion Europa Clipper mission aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy. The launch is slated for October 2024.
Announced on July 23, the $179-million launch services contract is the conclusion of a several-year long process to strip the mission from the manifest of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS).
The White House has projected that a single launch aboard an SLS rocket will likely cost the American taxpayer roughly $2 billion. The eye-watering launch costs in addition to a launch cadence of no more than one per year meant that if NASA was forced to assign Europa Clipper to an SLS rocket, the mission’s cost would balloon by approximately 30% and its launch date would have to be pushed by several months if not years.
With the selection of the Falcon Heavy as the prefered launch vehicle for the Europa Clipper mission, NASA has saved more than $1.8 billion, enough to fund one or several of the mission proposals currently being considered.
Despite the significant cost savings, the selection does not come without tradeoffs.
Launching aboard an SLS would have allowed the Europa Clipper spacecraft to head directly to Jupiter arriving in less than three years. Launching aboard a Falcon Heavy, the spacecraft will be required to perform several gravity-assist manoeuvres to enable it to get to its destination. This will add more than two years to the spacecraft’s trip to Jupiter.
Once in orbit around Europa, the spacecraft will conduct a detailed survey of the smallest of the four Galilean moons orbiting Jupiter. The Europa Clipper spacecraft is equipped with a suite of sophisticated science instruments to investigate whether the icy moon offers conditions suitable for life.
The Europe Clipper mission is the third NASA has selected to launch aboard the SpaceX Falcon Heavy in 2021 alone.
In February, the agency announced that it would launch the first two modules of its Gateway lunar space station aboard the heavy-lift rocket. Then in April, Astrobotic selected the Falcon Heavy to launch NASA VIPER rover aboard its Griffin lunar lander.