NASA tapped SpaceX to study whether Europa — a moon of Jupiter — has conditions that could potentially support life.
According to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the mission will mark the first “detailed investigations” of Europa, which is slightly smaller than Earth’s moon.
NASA has selected Falcon Heavy to fly Europa Clipper! Launching in October 2024, this interplanetary mission will study whether Jupiter's icy moon Europa could have conditions suitable for life. https://t.co/KJt7Natn7i pic.twitter.com/sfcdrcKE77
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) July 23, 2021
The Europa Clipper mission will launch in October 2024 on a Falcon Heavy rocket from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The total contract award amount for launch services is approximately $178 million.
Europa Clipper will conduct a detailed survey of Europa and use a sophisticated suite of science instruments to investigate whether the icy moon has conditions suitable for life. Key mission objectives are to produce high-resolution images of Europa’s surface, determine its composition, look for signs of recent or ongoing geological activity, measure the thickness of the moon’s icy shell, search for subsurface lakes, and determine the depth and salinity of Europa’s ocean.
The 1989 Galileo mission revealed the possible presence of an ocean below Europa’s surface:
One of the most important measurements made by the Galileo mission showed how Jupiter’s magnetic field was disrupted in the space around Europa. This measurement strongly implied that a special type of magnetic field is being created (induced) within Europa by a deep layer of some electrically conductive fluid beneath the surface. Based on Europa’s icy composition, scientists think the most likely material to create this magnetic signature is a global ocean of salty water.
Europa Clipper will seek to confirm the presence of its ocean. For example, measurements of the amount of flexing due to the tides are one important indicator — if the ocean exists, the tides should deform the surface by about 30 m (100 feet); if the moon is frozen through, the tides should stretch the surface by only one meter (3 feet).
According to SpaceX — which is led by CEO Elon Musk — Falcon Heavy is “the most powerful operational rocket in the world by a factor of two,” as it can lift payloads of nearly 141,000 pounds into orbit. The vehicle’s core booster and two side boosters contain a combined twenty-seven Merlin engines, which can generate more than five million pounds of thrust at takeoff.
In February 2018, SpaceX launched Musk’s Tesla Roadster — which he had previously used to commute to work — into space during a Falcon Heavy test flight. Footage of the launch and subsequent landings of the reusable rockets went viral on social media.
News of SpaceX’s contract to launch NASA’s Europa exploration is the latest development in the rise of the private space industry. Earlier in July, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin completed successful space tourism missions.
As The Daily Wire’s Ian Haworth described on a recent episode of Morning Wire, the rise of private space companies marks a “changing of the guard” for space innovation away from government agencies.