In a move that is likely to save the American taxpayer many billion dollars over the next few years, NASA carefully extricated a mission to one of Jupiter’s ocean moons from the clutches of its own Space Launch System (SLS) rocket.
Known as the Europa Clipper, the six-ton (~ 13,300 lb) spacecraft will instead be launched on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket for less than $ 180 million. If Falcon Heavy hadn’t been ready, or if NASA had avoided the challenge of switching launchers, sending the roughly $ 4.25 billion orbiter to Jupiter could easily have added more than $ 3 billion. at the total cost of the mission. Instead, Europa Clipper could launch a year or two earlier than SLS would have been ready. and at a cost which is practically a rounding error compared to the alternative.
Measuring about 3100 km (~ 1940 mi) in diameter, Europe is about 10% smaller and 30% less massive than Earth’s Moon. Both are similar rock balls with strong metal cores. However, based on observations made over decades by spacecraft and terrestrial telescopes, there is a good chance that Europa also has a vast ocean of liquid water isolated by 10 to 30 km (6 to 20 mi) of ice so cold it’s as hard as granite.
Scientists estimate that Europe’s saltwater ocean is tens to over 100 km deep, covers the entire surface of the Moon, and contains more water than all of Earth’s oceans combined. The signs of a liquid ocean beneath the crust of Europe (and the crust of many other outer moons in the solar system, as it would turn out) were particularly surprising due to the implication these moons had vast heat sources. In the case of Europe, it is believed that Jupiter’s immense gravitational pull and the moon’s near orbit are balanced in such a way that Europe is heated as these tidal forces violently stretch and compress its interior.
In an orbit 30% smaller than that of Europe, the warming tides are so aggressive that the moon Io is littered with titanic volcanoes and lava lakes over 200 km (~ 120 mi) in diameter – so large that waves were spotted on its surface with terrestrial telescopes. In short, because Europa seems to be in the right place to get enough – but not too much – tidal heating, it is believed to be one of the best potential harbors for alien life and the main focus of alien life. ‘Europa Clipper is to pursue this potential astrobiological treasure. .
The story of Europa Clipper is really bizarre. Defended almost on its own by Christian fundamentalist and former Republican Representative John Culberson, it is almost certain that the mission would never have come together and never got enough funding to continue. Culberson’s singular goal: to determine whether humanity is (or is not) alone in the universe. If life can evolve independently twice in the same average solar system, according to logic, this would practically guarantee that life will be ubiquitous everywhere we look.
Culberson’s original vision was an orbiter (Clipper) that would effectively spot Europe in search of a lander that would follow a few years later. Incredibly, he seems to have virtually guaranteed that Europa Clipper will be launch. However, he lost a bid for re-election in 2018, throwing the lander component into limbo before proper funding or pledges could be determined. It now seems likely that Europa Lander’s future will depend almost entirely on what Clipper finds (or doesn’t find).
Europa Clipper is now slated to launch on a Falcon Heavy rocket at the earliest in a two-week window slated to open in October 2024. As part of the policy to secure the billions of dollars needed to fund the mission, Culberson has initially chained Europa Clipper to NASA’s SLS rocket – now half a decade behind and expected to cost over $ 23 billion before its first launch. However, it appears that SLS is So poorly managed and uncharacterized that even his infamously zealous and pork-driven Congressional cheerleaders were unwilling to publicly fight to retain the SLS rocket’s only confirmed non-human payload.
Ultimately, on launch alone, Falcon Heavy’s Europa Clipper launch will likely save taxpayers over $ 2 billion – the likely minimum cost of a single SLS Cargo launch. Due to issues with the rocket, Ars Technica also reports that Europa Clipper and SLS would have required at least $ 1 billion in modifications and upgrades to fly safely, meaning the choice of SpaceX will likely end up in the end. saving NASA over $ 3 billion, or nearly three. – quarters of the price of the entire Europa Clipper mission.