NASA Ditches SLS for SpaceX to Launch Europa Clipper

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NASA’s Europa Clipper is one of the agency’s most ambitious and important missions of the coming decade. This spacecraft will conduct multiple close passes over the streaked surface of Europa, looking for hints of the moon’s vast underground oceans. However, NASA’s plan to launch on the Space Launch System (SLS) has been scrapped. Now, NASA will go with the SpaceX Falcon Heavy instead, following through on a proposal made early this year. 

The launch is currently on the books for October 2024, but the spacecraft won’t arrive at the Jovian moon until late in the decade. At that time, it will begin a series of swooping flybys of Europa, probing it with a suite of nine instruments to analyze its magnetic field, temperature, and more. Europa occasionally ejects plumes of water vapor into space, and the Clipper could analyze the chemical constituents of the water if it manages to fly through one.

Initially, the Europa Clipper was slated to use the SLS to reach Jupiter. This same rocket will form the basis of the Artemis moon program, but it’s been repeatedly delayed. The non-reusable SLS is also extremely expensive, adding more than $2 billion to the cost of launching the mission. Despite that, Congress wouldn’t let NASA consider alternatives. Parts of the SLS are built in Congressional districts around the country, so there was a lot of political maneuvering to increase the number of SLS launches. 

In early 2021, Congress passed a new budget that allowed NASA to explore alternative launch options for the Clipper, and here we are with SpaceX. The Falcon Heavy (above) has enough power to get Europa Clipper where it needs to go, and it’ll cost much less. This rocket is essentially three Falcon 9 rockets bolted together, and it’s flight-proven. It wasn’t even clear that Boeing (the primary SLS contractor) could get a core stage for the Clipper ready in time as it was also servicing Artemis. 

It’s not just the rocket that will cost less now — a version of the Clipper that launched on the SLS would have needed significant costly modifications. The SLS launches from the pad with the aid of two large solid boosters, which means payloads will experience what’s known as high “torsional load” from the vibration. To make Europa Clipper robust enough to survive that, it would need about a billion dollars worth of redesigns. That, along with the higher cost of the rocket itself, has finally convinced Congress to back down. So, this is a big win for SpaceX.

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