Elon Musk’s SpaceX rocket company has won a $178 million launch services contract for NASA’s first mission focused on Jupiter’s icy moon Europa and whether it might host life-friendly conditions, the US space agency said Friday.
The Europa Clipper mission is scheduled to launch in October 2024 on a Musk-owned Falcon Heavy rocket, Space Exploration Technologies Corp., from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, NASA said in a statement posted online.
The contract marks NASA’s latest vote of confidence in Hawthorne, California, which has flown several cargo and astronaut payloads to NASA’s International Space Station in recent years.
In April, SpaceX was awarded a $2.9 billion contract to build a lunar landing spacecraft for the planned Artemis program that would carry NASA astronauts to the Moon for the first time since 1972.
But that contract was put on hold after two competing aerospace companies, Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and defense contractor Dynetics Inc, protested the selection of SpaceX.
The 23-story, partially reusable Falcon Heavy, which is currently the world’s most powerful operational space launch vehicle, launched its first commercial payload into orbit in 2019.
NASA did not say what other companies might offer to contract the Europa Clipper launch.
The probe will conduct a detailed survey of the ice-covered Jovian satellite, which is slightly smaller than Earth’s moon and is a key candidate in the search for life elsewhere in the solar system.
Researchers concluded in 2018 that the bend in Europe’s magnetic field detected by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft in 1997 was caused by a geyser flowing through the moon’s frigid crust from a vast subsurface ocean, and these findings supported further evidence for Europa’s plumes.
Among the goals of the Clipper mission are to produce high-resolution images of Europa’s surface, determine its composition, search for signs of geological activity, measure the thickness of its ice sheet, and determine the depth and salinity of the ocean, NASA said.
(Covering by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles). Editing by Edmund Kelman
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