SpaceX has solidified its place as the leader when it comes to private aerospace and contracting. The company’s exploits have been especially prominent over the past two years, as it has had multiple successful launches and notched up contracts from just about everywhere.
The latest milestone for SpaceX involves one of the company’s longest-standing partners: NASA. According to recent reports, the space agency has selected SpaceX to lead Europa Clipper - the spacecraft headlining its mission to explore one of Jupiter’s moons.
SpaceX Wins Again
As a press release from NASA confirmed, it had selected SpaceX's Falcon Super Heavy rocket to provide launch services for its Europa Clipper mission to Jupiter. The mission has a tentative execution date of October 2024, and NASA is currently earmarking about $178 million for it.
If all goes according to plan, NASA is expected to launch Europa Clipper in 2024 from its Kennedy Space Center, while the craft will arrive at Jupiter around April 2030. The probe will conduct 40 closed flights of the moon and study it - an exercise that should take about four years.
NASA got the green light to develop Europa Clipper back in 2015. The spacecraft is expected to move around Jupiter and its moon, providing researchers with a look into the icy planet. There have been suspicions that there is an ocean lurking under Jupiter’s icy shell, and this could prove that life is indeed habitable on the solar system’s largest planet.
To check this hypothesis. Europa Clipper will carry a suite of instruments that will help scientists know if Jupiter’s moon - and the planet itself - can support life.
NASA Gets Fed Up with the SLS
Europa Clipper was initially meant to launch on NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS). The SLS is NASA’s next moon rocket, designed to take payloads into deep space. However, the agency changed plans as the SLS has been delayed severally and has run into various cost overruns.
Boeing, the company leading the development of NASA’s SLS, has also come under some fire for the repeated delays witnessed in the project.
NASA has now urged Congress to allow Europa Clipper to fly on a commercial spacecraft. The agency’s inspector-general believes that they could save up to $1 billion on the Jupiter mission. Of course, NASA is still set to launch the first test flight for the SLS later this year. The flight will take the rocket on a trajectory around the moon to test its capabilities before transporting people and cargo.
The SLS was supposed to have its first flight back in 2017. Several delays and adjustments have led to the mission being pushed all the way to November 2021. Currently, NASA believes that this launch date is still unlikely - even though everything needed is already at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
As it stands, the first four SLS rockets are built to return humans to the moon. So, it is unclear whether there will be any accommodation for Europa Clipper and its needs. With so much uncertainty, Congress has looked into another option - allowing commercial partners.
In a congressional appropriations bill draft, Congress confirmed that private companies - including names like SpaceX and Blue Origin - could provide the ride needed to take Europa Clipper to the Jovian system by 2025 and 2027.
The draft pointed to the fact that the SLS has still not picked up the pace. With the Jupiter mission tied to it, further delays will mean that the former won’t be able to pick up speed if it keeps waiting for the SLS.
The NASA-SpaceX Partnership Continues
Allowing a commercial partner makes sense for NASA, which has been struggling with getting the appropriate budget for its missions lately. The agency found that it could either partner with SpaceX or the United Launch Alliance (ULA), which had built a Delta IV launcher. By spending $179 million instead of the near $1 billion that the Inspector-General’s report highlighted, NASA has once again been able to save money.
This is the second time that SpaceX will save NASA’s budget this year. Earlier this year, the private aerospace company won NASA’s contract for a lunar lander system, beating out stiff competition from Blue Origin and Dynetics.
SpaceX’s bid for the lunar lander system was somewhere between $2.9 billion, while Blue Origin submitted a bid worth about twice that amount. Dynetics’ bid, although not reported, was said to have been even more than Blue Origin’s. NASA eventually stuck with SpaceX - although much to the chagrin of the other companies.