June 23, 2021

Using the Space Launch System is no longer on the table of launching the Europa Clipper

Initially, NASA had intended to use the Space Launch System as the launching vehicle for the Europa Clipper. However, it has changed its mind and will be using a commercial rocker. The agency will acquire it by the end of next year. The revelation of this information was on Feb 10 during NASA’s Outer Planets Assessment Group (OPAG) meeting. That’s when the officials in charge of the Europa Clipper project revealed that NASA had changed its mind. Instead of settling for a spacecraft launch on the Space Launch System, it chose to go for commercial launch vehicles.

Working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as the Europa Clipper’s project scientist, Robert Pappalardo said that both the launch date and the launch vehicle path were now crystal clear. The reality came after receiving a memo on Jan 25 from the ASA’s Planetary Missions Program Office. It stated that the team should start considering a commercial launch vehicle hence do away with maintaining Space Launch Systems compatibility.

Congress has been a massive advocate of launching the Europa Clipper on a Space Launch System (SLS). It has gone further to offer corresponding provisions in NASA’s annual spending bills directing the agency consistently for years. However, it requested a change of heart and an opportunity to be at liberty to choose a different launch vehicle. In its defense, the SLS would serve an even better purpose in the Artemis human lunar exploration program. Equally important, NASA would have to spend $1.5 billion less than using SLS if it settled for a commercial launch vehicle.

Initially, the project factored in the two launch choices. However, it made it clear how combining the two would make it more expensive and more complex. In August, the matters became even worse since there were hardware incompatibilities between SLS and the spacecraft it was intended to launch, and that’s bad news, no doubt.

Fortunately, the fiscal year 2021 appropriations bill made the agency’s wishes come true. After its enacting in December, it gave NASA the go-ahead to consider commercial services. However, there were conditions. NASA could only do it if resolving the hardware compatibility would prove difficult or the SLS was unavailable.

The scheduled launch date is not specific but will be any day in October 2024 within the stipulated 21-day window. The spacecraft will take about six years to reach its destination since it will arrive at Jupiter in 2030 April. Going by the Mars Gravity Assist projection, it will make a flyby on Mars in 2025 February. In 2026 December, it will also experience another flyby but on Earth.