NASA Saves $1.5 Billion By Choosing SpaceX For 628 Million Kilometer Journey

SpaceX's heavy-lift launch vehicle, the Falcon Heavy, lifts off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center.

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As the week came to an end, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) chose to award Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) with a $178 million contract to launch an observation satellite to Jupiter's ice-covered moon Europa. The satellite, dubbed as Europa Clipper, was originally slated to be launched on The Boeing Company's Space Launch System (SLS) launch vehicle developed exclusively for NASA use. However, due to scheduling constraints, the space agency was having second thoughts about using the SLS as early as last year, when it argued that switching to a commercial vehicle would save as much as $1.5 billion for launch and other costs for the Clipper mission.

SpaceX Wins $178 Million NASA Contract To Launch Mission To Jupiter On Its Largest Operational Rocket

SpaceX will use its Falcon Heavy rocket to launch the Europa Clipper mission in October 2024. NASA requires that the rocket chosen for the Clipper mission can deliver more than six tons of payload (the Clipper weighs 6,065 kilograms) with a Mars Earth Gravity Assist trajectory. The MEGA will provide the Clipper with some momentum as it undertakes a six-year-long journey to Jupiter's moon.

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NASA's original estimates for the mission indicated that the Clipper would have to make no less than four gravity assists during this time. These would involve one from Earth, Mars and Venus each and provide the Clipper with the energy necessary to reach Europa, 628 million kilometers away from Earth.

However, it appears as if the Venus flyby, which is the riskiest, might be voided in this mission. While NASA's press release for the award or its proposal requests does not mention Venus, Orbital ATK's 48BV kick stage will likely aid the Falcon Heavy to avoid the Venus assist. The assist is dangerous due to high radiation levels in the inner Solar System, which requires shielding the spacecraft and increasing its launch mass.

The Europa Clipper's magnetic field is illustrated by NASA.

The longer time duration for the Falcon Heavy is due to the vehicle's thrust deficit over the SLS. SpaceX's heavy-lift rocket is capable of generating five million pounds of thrust at liftoff. In contrast, the SLS, classified as a super-heavy-lift launch vehicle, can generate 8.4 million pounds at liftoff. The two are the only launch vehicles NASA could have considered for the Clipper mission due to the United Launch Alliance's inability to procure engines for its rockets.

Using a commercial launch provider, now confirmed to be SpaceX, allows NASA to save up to $1.5 billion in launch costs, outlined the space agency to Congress early last year. These savings result not only from the Falcon Heavy's reusability - SpaceX's rocket reuses all of its first stages - but also due to reduced storage costs.

Scheduling constraints with the SLS, which is NASA's workhorse for the Artemis program, made the availability of a rocket for the Clipper's launch date uncertain, even though the spacecraft is projected to be ready for flight by 2023. The longer the delay for an SLS rocket, the higher the storage costs for NASA, with this being only the tip of the iceberg. This is due to the fact that if the space agency had locked itself with an SLS for the mission and a rocket was unavailable,  then it would have had to pay the costs of building a new one from the ground up.

As for SpaceX, the company plans to replace both the Falco 9 and the Falcon Heavy with its Starship next-generation launch vehicle system. Starship is designed to generate more than sixteen million pounds of thrust and form the backbone of the company's plans of conducting interplanetary missions, including those to the Martian surface.

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