By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Elon Musk’s private rocket company SpaceX has been awarded a $ 178 million launch services contract for NASA’s first mission to focus on Jupiter’s icy moon Europa and whether it can harbor suitable conditions for life, the space agency said on Friday.
The Europa Clipper mission is due to lift off in October 2024 on a Falcon Heavy rocket owned by Musk’s company, Space Exploration Technologies Corp, of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, NASA said in a statement posted online.
The contract marked NASA’s latest vote of confidence in the Hawthorne, California-based company, which has transported multiple payloads and astronauts to NASA’s International Space Station in recent years.
In April, SpaceX was awarded a $ 2.9 billion contract to build the lunar spacecraft for the planned Artemis program that would take NASA astronauts back to the moon for the first time since 1972.
But that contract was suspended after two rival space companies, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and defense contractor Dynetics Inc, protested against SpaceX’s selection.
The company’s partially reusable 23-story Falcon Heavy, currently the world’s most powerful operational space launch vehicle, put its first commercial payload into orbit in 2019.
NASA did not say what other companies may have bid on the Europa Clipper launch contract.
The probe will carry out a detailed study of the ice-covered Jovian satellite, which is slightly smaller than Earth’s moon and is a leading candidate in the search for life elsewhere in the solar system.
A curve in Europa’s magnetic field observed by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft in 1997 appeared to have been caused by a geyser gushing through the frozen crust of the moon from a vast underground ocean, the researchers concluded in 2018. Those The findings supported other evidence from columns from Europe.
The Clipper mission’s goals include producing high-resolution images of Europa’s surface, determining its composition, looking for signs of geological activity, measuring the thickness of its icy layer, and determining the depth and salinity of its ocean, NASA said. .
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