By William Tucker
Contributor, In Space News
NASA has given the green light to begin the next phase of the Clipper mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa scheduled to launch between 2023 and 2025. This next step will focus on spacecraft design, construction and testing.
The current plan calls for the new craft to launch from the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, the most powerful rocket NASA has ever built. The Clipper mission aims to collect data about habitability of the moon and potential landing areas for future missions. In short, the Clipper mission is laying the groundwork for future missions that hope to find life on Europa.
Europa Clipper Mission One Key Step Closer to Unlocking Mysteries of Ocean World
Speaking of the upcoming mission, Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., said, “We are all excited about the decision that moves the Europa Clipper mission one key step closer to unlocking the mysteries of this ocean world. We are building upon the scientific insights received from the flagship Galileo and Cassini spacecraft and working to advance our understanding of our cosmic origin, and even life elsewhere.”
Four Previous NASA Missions Were Flybys to Europa
Four previous NASA missions were flybys that managed to record scant, but compelling data about Europa’s nature that prompted further study. In 1979, Voyager 2 recorded evidence of a large ocean below the icy crust on the surface. Later images captured via telescope noted the possible presence of water plumes suggesting that water makes it to the surface. Moreover, the cracks in the surface ice might be the result of Europa’s orbit of Jupiter. Once the moon passes close enough to Jupiter, the gravitational pull likely increases the tide of Europa’s ocean. If there is indeed liquid water beneath Europa’s icy surface, then the possibility of that ocean containing life increases subsequently.
There is one hitch that could delay the mission, however. Congress mandated that NASA use the new SLS rocket for the Clipper mission, but any development delays could push the mission closer to 2025. This is still within the planned NASA timeframe, yet storing the Clipper craft would cost the agency millions per month.
The Artemis missions to Earth’s moon are likewise slated to use the SLS rocket. Since this is a reusable system, the rocket needs prep time between launches that would make the SLS unavailable until late 2025 even if there were no development delays. For its part, NASA would like to use a commercial rocket for the Clipper mission.
In a letter to Congress on the matter, NASA Inspector General Paul Martin stated that, “given all of the foregoing factors, we urge Congress to consider removing the requirement that NASA launch the Europa Clipper on an SLS and allow the Agency to decide whether to use an SLS or a commercial vehicle based on cost, schedule, vehicle availability and impact on science requirements.”
This mandate by Congress, and the pushback by NASA, suggests that the government is still working out how to use private space transportation companies. The government has enlisted these companies in the recent past. But for Congress and NASA to argue over their use when potential delays of a mission increase cost signals the need for better policy. Also in the letter, the OIG mentioned two commercial alternatives from SpaceX and United Launch Alliance that are already operational.
While delayed, the SLS does have a significant advantage over commercial travel solutions in that it can get the Clipper craft to Europa in two and a half years, while the current heavy-lift rockets could only manage the travel distance in six years. Politics aside, the Clipper program’s mission to Europa is of great scientific value and should provide insight into the potential for life elsewhere in our solar system.
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