As you might already know, Jupiter's moon Europa is covered in ice. But scientists believe that beneath the icy exterior, there is warm water that could harbor alien life forms. So far, we have only had the chance to observe this moon from a distance and NASA has now chosen Elon Musk's SpaceX to take Earth's first dedicated mission to Europa in just over three years' time from now.
Called the Europa Clipper, the mission was originally going to be launched on NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. However, a series of delays in the development of the SLS, the need to maintain the SLS team's focus on the Moon Landing mission later in the decade, and the additional cost of $1 billion for fixing the vibrations on the rocket were concerning, reports Ars Technica. Not to forget the estimated cost of launch onboard the SLS was $2 billion while SpaceX will handle the launch for a comparatively smaller fee of $178 million.
The mission is scheduled for October 2024 from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The Falcon Heavy Rocket will put in a long looping orbit around Jupiter, a radiation-tolerant spacecraft with nine scientific instruments onboard. The spacecraft is scheduled to fly by Europa on 45 occasions at altitudes varying from 1700 miles (2700 km) to 16 miles (25 km) and take high-resolution images while also measuring various parameters to determine if there actually is water under the icy crust.
To enable the mission, NASA will provide the spacecraft with radar that will penetrate the icy shell and determine its thickness and look for subsurface lakes. A magnetometer will measure the salinity of the water bodies and the strength of the moon's magnetic field, while cameras and spectrophotometer will capture surface images at high resolution to help determine its composition. Onboard instruments will also survey Europa's atmosphere for traces of water vapor while a thermal instrument will look for recent eruptions of warm water.
Water eruptions from beneath the ice were recorded as early as 1997 in a fly-by mission, but scientists noticed them only in 2018 after The Hubble Space Telescope sent images of water plumes in 2016.
SpaceX is quickly becoming a reliable launcher for NASA's missions. In April this year, the company carried four NASA astronauts into space while has also been chosen as a partner for a moon lander mission in 2023. Let's see what comes next.