NASA’s Europa mission will hitch a ride on SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket

Europa Clipper will search for conditions favorable to host life

A rendering of the NASA Europa Clipper spacecraft. (WKMG 2021)

A robotic mission to study Jupiter’s moon Europa will blast off from Florida in a few years on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy, NASA announced Friday.

SpaceX was awarded the $178 million launch contract from the U.S. space agency to launch the Europa Clipper spacecraft from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in October 2024.

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Europa is one of more than 70 Jovian moons but planetary scientists are particularly interested in this one because its icy surface is thought to encapsulate underground bodies of water including subsurface lakes. The fascinating world was first observed by NASA’s Voyager spacecraft more than 40 years ago and scientists have been waiting to uncover its secrets ever since.

The spacecraft will use scientific instruments to survey Europa to investigate the geology of the moon and determine if it could host microbial life. A radar instrument will help hunt for water beneath Europa’s icy crust.

Once in orbit around Europa, the spacecraft would make at least 45 flybys of the moon ranging from 1,700 miles down to 16 miles above its surface.

Clipper is currently under development at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

Falcon Heavy is SpaceX’s most powerful operational rocket with three boosters and 27 Merlin engines. The boosters all land again for re-flight, two back at the landing zone at Cape Canaveral and one on a drone ship at sea.

SpaceX has also been awarded other contracts from NASA and its partners to fly planetary science missions, including NASA’s Lunar Gateway and Astrobotic’s moon lander.