NASA just announced that it has awarded Elon Musk's aerospace company, SpaceX, a $178-million launch services contract for its first probe into Jupiter's moon Europa.
A mission called the "Europa Clipper" is slated for launch in October 2024, Fox 5 reported. It will lift off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
NASA Extends Vote of Confidence to SpaceX with Europa Clipper Mission
NASA's awarding of the Europa Clipper mission to SpaceX underscores the space agency's continuing vote of confidence for the Hawthrone, California-based firm. For what it's worth, SpaceX has sent several Crew Dragon missions with NASA astronauts on board carrying cargo payloads to the International Space Station, Reuters indicated in a report.
SpaceX also won a $2.9 billion NASA contract to construct a moon lander spacecraft for the Artemis program, sending astronauts back to the Moon--a first since the last Apollo mission in 1972. Its awarding, however, was suspended after protests from rival space companies like Blue Origin of billionaire Jeff Bezos and US defense contractor Dynetics.
The Falcon Heavy, SpaceX's reusable space rocket, is considered the most powerful of its kind after launching the first commercial payloads into space in 2019.
NASA Europa Clipper Mission to Determine if Jupiter Moon Is Habitable
The Europa Clipper mission is set to make a detailed survey of the icy Europa moon, which is 90 percent the size of the Earth's own Moon.
Scientists will find out if Europa, Jupiter's icy moon, is in fact livable, the Fox 5 report added. Evidence from previous studies showed that Europa has a vast ocean underneath its crust. The moon was first discovered by astronomer Galileo Galilei, amongst other moons of Jupiter using a telescope of his own design in January 1610.
Europa's icy crust is believed to be 10 to 15 miles thick, and its internal ocean is approximately 40 to 100 miles deep.
NASA's Europa Clipper will make an orbit around Jupiter for close fly-bys of Europa, following an elliptical direction. It will measure the depth and salinity of Europa's ocean, and also the thickness of its icy shell, a NASA statement said. The spacecraft will also map Europa's surface and study its composition, seek plumes emanating from water vapor possibly from Europa's crust and subsurface lakes, and finally beam back high-resolution images of the lunar surface.
The U.S. space agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory emphasized that exploring Europa's habitability should make scientists understand better how life began on Earth 382 million miles from it, aside from discovering life beyond our planet.
JPL leads efforts in building the spacecraft in collaboration with the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. NASA's Launch Services Program based in Kennedy Space Center in Florida will oversee the launching of the Europa Clipper mission. Meanwhile, the agency's Planetary Missions Office located in NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama will be assigned the mission's program management.