Contrary to science-fiction icon Arthur C. Clarke’s admonition never to attempt a landing on Jupiter’s moon, Europa, NASA announced on Friday that it had selected SpaceX to launch a planned voyage to the icy moon,with its 120-mile high plumes erupting from a global ocean that lies 15 miles below a chaotic, churning surface.
A promising abode for life, Europa is a rare planetary body that may have maintained volcanic activity over billions of years and that has an enormous ocean between its icy crust and a rocky interior and a long-lived source of energy.
NASA’s decision represents yet another huge win for Elon Musk’s company as it sets its sights deeper into the solar system, using the Space X Falcon Heavy rocket, which generates more than five million pounds of thrust (22 million Newtons) at liftoff, equal to approximately eighteen 747 aircraft.
The Europa Clipper mission, reports NASA, will launch in October 2024 on a Falcon Heavy rocket from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, with the total contract worth $178 million. The mission was previously supposed to take off on NASA’s own Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, which has been plagued by delays and cost overruns, with critics calling it a “jobs program” for the state of Alabama where much of the development work is taking place.
While SLS isn’t yet operational, Falcon Heavy has deployed on both commercial and government missions since its maiden flight in 2018 when it carried Musk’s own Tesla Roadster into space.
The Europa clipper orbiter will make about 40 to 50 close passes over Europa to determine whether the icy moon could harbor conditions suitable for life.
Its payload will include cameras and spectrometers to produce high-resolution images and compositional maps of the surface and atmosphere, as well as radar to penetrate the ice layer ocean to search for liquid water below.
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