Jupiter is rising: SpaceX has just received another major NASA contract | Economic and business news
NASA’s eagerly awaited mission to explore Jupiter’s largest moon, Europe, has officially booked its space trip.
According to NASA officials, the $ 4.25 billion Europa Clipper spacecraft will launch on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket under a contract valued at approximately $ 178 million.
If all goes according to plan, Clipper will launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida in October 2024 and reach Jupiter in April 2030. The probe will then examine Europe in-depth as it completes more than 40 close fly-bys on the moon over a period of approximately four Earth years.
The announcement made on Friday is a huge win for SpaceX as the Europa Clipper mission was originally intended to fly on NASA’s newest mega launcher, the Space Launch System (SLS). Aerospace giant Boeing is the prime contractor for the design, development, testing and production of the SLS core and upper levels as well as the flight avionics suite.
Europa Clipper was officially given the green light by NASA in 2015. During the course of its mission, the probe will pass the moon several times, providing researchers with enticing glimpses of the icy world, which many believe is an ocean lurking beneath its icy crust.
To this end, the spacecraft carries a number of scientific instruments designed to help scientists figure out whether the moon could support life.
Since its inception, Clipper has been legally required to launch on NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS). But that has changed recently due to constant delays and cost overruns at SLS.
To this end, NASA has repeatedly asked Congress to consider allowing Europa Clipper to fly a commercial spacecraft. Switching to another vehicle could save the mission up to $ 1 billion, according to NASA’s inspector general.
NASA’s Space Launch System mobile launcher will be on launch pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida in July 2019 [File: Thom Baur/Reuters]
SLS is NASA’s next moon rocket. The powerful launcher is expected to launch payloads into space, and the first of these missions, a test flight, is due to start later this year. The rocket, which outperforms the Saturn V, will launch on a trajectory around the moon to test the vehicle’s capabilities before moving people and cargo.
The heavy-duty vehicle had its challenges, but thanks to some powerful allies in Congress, the program kept going for years, even when it hit budgets and deadlines.
The first flight of the SLS was originally supposed to take place in 2017. That mission has since been postponed to November 2021, and although all of the mission’s hardware is in Florida, NASA’s watchdog agency still says the schedule remains “very unlikely”.
With the first four SLS rockets used to return people to the moon, it is unclear when Europa Clipper would have one available. This uncertainty led the House of Representatives to open the door to another option: a commercial launcher.
In its proposed 2021 budget, the House said that NASA should launch Clipper by 2025 and the future lander, which is not yet an official mission, by 2027, using SLS for both “if available”.
The change in wording opened up the possibility of a commercial alternative to SLS, and the Clipper team began planning for both contingencies – a dual duty that negatively affected the progress of the mission, team members said.
“We looked at several options,” a source close to the mission told Al Jazeera. “Including Falcon Heavy and other comparable launch vehicles, while SLS is still planned.”
That changed, however, in January when the team received new instructions from Congress: Go ahead with choosing a viable commercial option, explained Clipper team member Bob Pappalardo.
“In late January we received a memo instructing the project to ‘immediately stop efforts to maintain SLS compatibility and move forward with a commercial launcher,'” he told Al Jazeera.
At that time, NASA published an official call for proposals and took the time to consider the options. According to the agency, Falcon Heavy was the best option.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket rises from Launch Complex 39A and carries the company’s Crew Dragon Endeavor capsule and four Crew 2 astronauts towards the International Space Station at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida in April 2021 [File: NASA/Ben Smegelsky/Handout via Reuters]
The advantage of commercial flying
Choosing a commercially manufactured heavy missile presented both challenges and benefits.
Despite the variety of options, none of the commercial options available are beefy enough to put Clipper on the same journey that SLS would take. So Clippers trip will take about five and a half instead of three years. And the probe will have to make speed-increasing “gravity-assist” flybys of Mars and Earth in February 2025 and December 2026, respectively, Pappalardo said.
A commercial launcher also needs a kick stage, an additional stage that attaches to the top of the rocket to give it a power boost.
It is unclear how choosing a private missile will affect the overall cost of Clipper. A commercial porter won’t be as expensive as SLS, but the extra travel time will add to the cost of the mission, agency officials said.
NASA was faced with a riddle: is Europa Clipper sitting in the warehouse waiting for the chance to fly an SLS rocket, or does the mission take a little longer to get to Jupiter?
That decision led NASA to ultimately decide to launch Clipper on Falcon Heavy.
Casey Dryer of the Planetary Society told Al Jazeera that this was a great deal for NASA. “The stated start-up costs for the Falcon Heavy of 178 million
SpaceX first launched its Falcon Heavy in 2018 and even stunned its CEO Elon Musk, who wasn’t sure the rocket would be successful.
It didn’t take long for confidence in the heavy truck to grow when it landed a lucrative Air Force contract just months after its first deployment. The $ 130 million contract includes the launch of an Air Force Space Command 52 satellite, due later this year.
Falcon Heavy has also signed contracts to launch part of NASA’s upcoming lunar gateway, a key piece of the agency’s lunar architecture.
In order to launch any kind of scientific or planetary mission, a launcher must meet certain requirements and undergo an intensive verification process that does not take place with typical communications satellites.
According to NASA’s Launch Services Program – the department that oversees the launch of all unmanned spacecraft – gaining new certification is a lengthy process that can take up to two years.
SpaceX first received proper certification for its Falcon 9 rocket in 2018. “However, the Falcon Heavy is essentially three missiles strapped together and it has been determined that new certification is required,” an LSP spokesman told Al Jazeera.
SpaceX has completed the required certification process and is reaping the rewards. Not only will it launch the Europa Clipper mission, but before that, Falcon Heavy is slated to put the Psyche mission into orbit in 2022. Psyche will be a great test of Falcon Heavy’s abilities when it’s a spaceship on a journey to explore the metallic core of an asteroid.
Booster rocket engines near landing pads after a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket lifted off with an Arabsat 6A communications satellite from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida in 2019 [File: Joe Skipper/Reuters]
However, despite the enormous price tag and the delayed schedule, the future of SLS is bright, Drier said. Not only does the project have immense support from Congress, he noted, but it also employs tens of thousands of people in the United States.
He said NASA has learned to live with the costs and is one reason why the project has received so much political support. The project aims to prove what it was designed for: bringing people and hardware to the moon. Its success and longevity aren’t tied to what SpaceX does.
Once on Jupiter, Clipper will conduct a detailed study of Europe and use a sophisticated array of scientific instruments to investigate whether the icy moon has conditions for life.
The main objectives of the mission are to map the surface of the moon to help scientists determine its composition, look for signs of geological activity, and measure the thickness of the moon’s icy shell. The probe will also search for underground lakes and determine the depth and salinity of Europe’s underground ocean.
The journey to Jupiter is just the beginning for the spacecraft, as it will fly over the lunar surface for four years. Clipper’s observations will assess the habitability of the moon, but will also help mission planners select promising locations for the proposed future lander – if that mission is able to launch the ground in the near future.