NASA has chosen Falcon Heavy of SpaceX to deploy Europa Clipper operation to Jupiter’s feasibly habitable moon Europa, a move that looked unavoidable once Space Launch System (SLS) was retired. NASA announced on July 23 that it had awarded SpaceX a launch capabilities deal for the Europa Clipper’s deployment in October 2024 on Falcon Heavy rocket. The contract has a total value of $178 million.
The funding was anticipated after Congress gave SpaceX the authority to choose an alternate launch vehicle that will be utilized for the operation in the financial year 2021 omnibus spending deal, which was passed in 2020 December. Despite NASA’s appeal for flexibility to contract a private launch vehicle, the SLS was required to be used for the Europa Clipper in prior years’ budget bills.
Congress caved down due to potential hardware compatibility issues uncovered last year between the SLS and the Europa Clipper. As per the 2021 spending bill, NASA was directed to utilize SLS for Europa Clipper if “the SLS is available and if torsional loading evaluation has proven Clipper’s acceptability for SLS.” A month after the legislation was enacted, NASA gave instructions to the the Europa Clipper operation to stop operations of all strategies for a launch on the SLS and instead prepare for a launch on a private spacecraft.
“We now have certainty on the path and launch date of the launch vehicle,” said Robert Pappalardo, a project scientist of the Europa Clipper at the JTL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory), at a conference in early February. Given the operation’s launch vehicles and technical standards capable of meeting them, NASA agency was anticipated to choose Falcon Heavy of SpaceX. Europa Clipper was classified as “Category 3” for launch services by NASA, which requires vehicles to have undertaken a minimum of three launches which have been successful, including two consecutive flights.
Falcon Heavy has flown 3 times and accomplished each flight flawlessly, despite not having deployed since June 2019. Alternatives, such as New Glenn of the Blue Origin and the Vulcan Centaur of United Launch Alliance, will not be deployed until the earliest next year.
There are substantial schedule and cost trade-offs when launching Europa Clipper on Falcon Heavy instead of the SLS. In its financial year 2021 budget appeal, NASA claimed that a commercial launch would save the agency “over $1.5 billion, particularly when compared to using Space Launch System rocket.” Even so, a report from the NASA Office of the Inspector General released in 2019 found that the cost difference might be as little as $300 million, even though the Falcon Heavy launch’s cost was estimated to be $1.5 billion.
SLS, on the other hand, would almost certainly have given a faster voyage for Europa Clipper. If SLS had been deployed, the spacecraft might have gone straight to Jupiter and arrived in less than 3 years. With the Falcon Heavy, Europa Clipper is going to make gravity-assist flybys of Earth and Mars before landing at Jupiter 5.5 years after launch.