Europa Clipper mission to launch atop a Falcon Heavy
After years of debating on a launch vehicle Europa Clipper spacecraft, NASA has selected SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy for the highly-anticipated mission to Jupiter’s icy moon.
Originally mandated by the United States Congress to fly atop NASA’s Space Launch System, earlier in 2021, NASA got the go-ahead to select a commercial launch vehicle if an SLS wouldn’t be available or if there was a hardware compatibility issue.
As it turns out, a spare SLS is unlikely to be available for non-Artemis missions. So in January, NASA issued a solicitation for options to launch the flagship mission.
The $4.25 billion Europa Clipper mission is slated for launch in October 2024 from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
After it reaches space, it will take the rest of the 2020s to reach Jupiter, requiring gravity-assist maneuvers with Mars in February 2025 and Earth in December 2026 before arriving at the giant planet in April 2030.
When it arrives, this spacecraft will conduct an in-depth and detailed science mission of Jupiter’s moon Europa and investigate whether the icy moon has conditions suitable for life, according to NASA.
Rather than orbit the moon itself, it’ll perform several flybys of the icy body as it circles Jupiter over the course of its four-year primary mission.
Built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the spacecraft is expected to have a launch mass of about 13,370 pounds (6,065 kilograms) with a payload mass of about 770 pounds (350 kilograms).
It is expected to be about 20 feet (6 meters) tall with a solar panel wingspan of 72 feet (22 meters).
The spacecraft, once finished, is expected to have a whole array of instruments to study the icy moon. It is believed that Europa has a liquid water ocean underneath is icy shell. This is likely due to the immense tidal flexing imparted by Jupiter onto Europa, heating up the small body’s interior and driving geological processes.
In addition to understanding and characterizing the nature of the subsurface ocean, the mission is also set to investigate the moon’s potential habitability and search for a potential landing site of a future Europa lander. One recent study showed that any attempt to find life may require drilling through the icy crust and into the ocean below.
Europa Clipper is also set to acquire super-high-resolution images of the moon’s surface, use its suite of science arrays and sensitive equipment to determine its surface composition, look for signs of recent or ongoing geological or geothermal activity, measure the thickness of the moon’s icy shell, search for subsurface lakes, and determine the depth and salinity of Europa’s ocean.
Video courtesy of NASA
A native of Lonedell, Missouri, Michael McCabe is a former Long Island firefighter and emergency medical technician. He is a non-active Florida EMT with 20 years of fire rescue experience. He is also a lifelong science fiction and space enthusiast. At the age of 10, he watched in his school classroom as the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986. In 2008, he moved to the Sunshine State and works as a private tour guide at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex for a private company based in Orlando. McCabe has been a fan of SpaceFlight Insider since our inception in 2013. He reached out to ask how he could assist our efforts to spread space flight awareness. Shortly thereafter, he was welcomed into our expanding team.