The United States House of Representatives released a draft of a congressional appropriations bill on Tuesday, July 7. The draft detailed $22.63 billion in funding for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
Besides launching the first woman and next man to the lunar surface under the Artemis program by the year 2024, NASA aims to launch a space exploration mission towards Jupiter to analyze its Europa moon. Europa is believed to have the ingredients necessary to be potentially habitable. The mysterious icy moon will be explored by the agency’s Clipper spacecraft.
Initially, Congress approved NASA to conduct the mission towards Jupiter with Boeing's Space Launch System (SLS) rocket which is still under development. The SLS rocket’s development has been expensive, and it has faced many delays. Also, the cost to launch SLS would be around $1.5 billion more than an operating rocket by a commercial aerospace company. It is still unclear when SLS would be ready to take flight, NASA would like to conduct the Clipper mission before the year 2025. Clipper would take around 3 years to arrive to the Jovian system.
Today, a particular detail stood out about the new draft, which stated:
“The National Aeronautics and Space Administration shall use the Space Launch System, if available, as the 10 launch vehicles for the Jupiter Europa missions.”
This new draft wording - “if available” - suggests that the agency and congress might be open to allowing commercial companies to conduct this mission, since the SLS rocket might not be available for use by the time Clipper is ready. Commercial aerospace companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin could [maybe] have the opportunity to bid for launching Clipper towards Jupiter. A rocket like SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy is capable of carrying out the Clipper mission towards the icy Europa moon. Astronomers believe that Europa could hide an ocean under its surface. Some scientists say that there could even be alien lifeforms beneath its ice-water.
The draft bill also details that the U.S. government will provide $400 million for NASA to build the Europa explorer spacecraft. The bill has not yet been approved by the government.