SpaceX’s winning streak continued Friday with NASA’s announcement that it has selected Falcon Heavy to launch the agency’s long-awaited Europa Clipper mission in 2024.
The decision comes after an arduous tug of war with U.S. Congress who insisted for years that the mission be launched on NASA’s flagship SLS rocket.
The reasons for pushing for an SLS launch were decidedly political on Congress’s part. Legislators simply wanted more missions on the SLS manifest to support work in their own districts.
However, Falcon Heavy began to present a more compelling case in 2018 when NASA determined the rocket would make it to Europa in a similar amount of time with the addition of a “kick stage”, or an extra solid rocket motor, to the payload. With this added boost, instead of detouring to the inner solar system for an additional gravity assist from Venus, Falcon Heavy could take the faster MEGA (Mars-Earth Gravity Assist) route which is only 2 years longer than SLS launching directly to Jupiter.
Falcon Heavy also handily addresses the concerns over SLS’s costs and oft-delayed schedules. With SpaceX’s vehicle taking over the Europa Clipper mission, Boeing is now under less pressure to produce an extra SLS core stage by the 2024 target and can instead focus on keeping to NASA’s already daunting Artemis 2024 timeline. Falcon Heavy will also save NASA upwards of $2 Billion on an SLS launch, with a comparatively paltry $178 million price tag for its launch services.
The final nail in the coffin for Europa Clipper flying aboard SLS came in the form of a “torsional load” analysis from NASA earlier this year, which basically entails a total measurement of the twisting and shaking stresses a payload would undergo on the rocket. For SLS, those loads were up to three times higher than what the Europa Clipper mission could tolerate. With this new development, Congress finally relented and stepped aside for a commercial launch provider to take the reigns.
SpaceX and Falcon Heavy will be entrusted with one of the most anticipated space exploration undertakings of our time. The Europa Clipper mission is slated to launch in October 2024 for a 6 year journey to the Jovian system. When it reaches Jupiter’s orbit in 2030 it will conduct up to 44 fly-bys of Europa to determine if the icy moon is concealing a large ocean or even aquatic life beneath its surface.
Falcon Heavy Featured Image Credit: SpaceX | Europa Clipper Featured Render Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
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