NASA has selected SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket to launch the Europa Clipper mission, which will see the space agency assess Jupiter’s moon for potential to sustain life.
NASA has awarded SpaceX a contract worth $178m to provide launch services for its first mission to conduct detailed investigations of Jupiter’s moon Europa.
The mission, called Europa Clipper, will launch in October 2024 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.
A Falcon Heavy rocket owned by Elon Musk’s private space exploration company will be used for the mission, which aims to conduct a detailed survey of Europa and investigate whether the icy moon has the potential to sustain life.
The mission’s main objectives include producing high-resolution images of Europa’s surface, determining its composition, looking for signs of recent or ongoing geological activity, measuring the thickness of the moon’s icy shell, searching for subsurface lakes and determining the depth and salinity of Europa’s ocean.
The Falcon Heavy is a partially reusable heavy-lift launch vehicle, which was first launched in 2018. Since June 2010, rockets from SpaceX’s Falcon 9 family have been launched more than 120 times.
The new contract announced last Friday (23 July) marks NASA’s latest vote of confidence in Musk’s company, which has now carried several cargo payloads and astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA.
In a first for a private company, SpaceX conducted a demonstration mission to the ISS in 2020 with two NASA astronauts. A mission to the ISS in April of this year marked the third crewed flight launched into orbit under NASA’s partnership with the company.
In April, SpaceX was also awarded a $2.9bn contract from NASA to build the lunar lander for the planned Artemis programme that aims to bring astronauts back to the moon for the first time since 1972. However, that contract was later suspended after two rival space companies, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and defence contractor Dynetics, protested against the SpaceX selection.