Featured Image Source: NASA
NASA intends to launch multi-million dollar Europa Clipper spacecraft towards Jupiter's icy-moon Europa by year 2023. Europa is believed to possess a subsurface ocean, upon arrival the spacecraft would investigate whether the ocean could sustain alien lifeforms, or life as we know it on its surface. In August 2019, the agency set a baseline cost of $4.25 billion budget for the mission to cover all phases of development as well as operations. This year, NASA's Europa Clipper mission could receive $600 million for the fiscal year that begins in October 2020. Congress will decide the budget soon. NASA’s Europa Clipper mission officials, are trying to find cost saving options that would keep their program running for 2020. The agency has not reached a final decision on what rocket they will use to launch the probe. Congress wants NASA to use Boeing's Space Launch System, also known as 'SLS' for the mission. SLS is NASA's chosen spacecraft that will carry out missions to the Moon under the Artemis program scheduled to land astronauts on the lunar surface by 2024. NASA officials, oppose using SLS to take clipper to Europa due to how expensive Boeing's launch cost would be, they have suggested to use commercial launch vehicles for launching the Europa Clipper towards Jupiter in order to save tax-payer money.
Artist render of Boeing SLS. /Source: NASA
The mission requires a spacecraft as powerful as a SpaceX Falcon Heavy, which has flown three times, versus Boeing's SLS, which has never flown before. The rocket they choose will have significant differences in the project's budget, also affect the missions schedule. If NASA sends Clipper on the SLS rocket the probe would arrive to Jupiter within 3 years. Boeing's SLS is capable of producing 8.4 million pounds of thrust at liftoff. The down side is that SLS is that it has never flown and is still under development. According to NASA the completion of the rocket will take 3 years and be ready sometime in November 2023. Contracting Boeing SLS services is expected to cost NASA between $900 million to $2 billion for launch only.
SpaceX Falcon Heavy./Source: SpaceX
In comparison, if the agency uses a commercial launch vehicle instead to stay within a reasonable budget, like contracting SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket, it would save NASA money, cost about $90 to $150 million per launch. Currently, Falcon Heavy is the most powerful operational rocket in the world, trailing the Saturn V rocket that took astronauts to the moon during the Apollo missions. Falcon Heavy is the third-highest capacity of any orbital-class rocket ever launched, it is capable of generating a maximum thrust of 5.13 million pounds at liftoff. If launched aboard Falcon Heavy, Europa Clipper would arrive to Jupiter's moon within an approximate time frame of 5 to 6 years. Which may seem like a long time, but if we consider that it will take Boeing 3 years to finish their SLS rocket, and Falcon Heavy is currently operational, it's a reasonable option. If the Clipper spacecraft was (theoretically) ready to be launched by the end of this year, it's quite possible that it could arrive to Jupiter before or by the time the SLS rocket is ready to carry-out missions.
Contracting SpaceX's Falcon Heavy launch services is the most affordable option available to NASA for sending the Europa Clipper probe to Jupiter's icy-moon. According to a new NASA proposal to Congress, the agency would save $1.5 billion if the launch was contracted out to a commercial company like SpaceX (among others), instead of launching on Boeing’s SLS rocket. NASA has submitted proposals to save money, and Congress has previously pushed back against using any launch vehicles other than SLS for the Europa Clipper mission. Approximate estimates suggest, NASA could afford 17 to 27 Falcon Heavy launches a year for what the agency is paying annually to develop Boeing's SLS rocket. In the end, Congress will have the final decision of what rocket will be allowed to carry the Europa Clipper spacecraft towards Jupiter.