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SpaceX awarded a $178M contract for NASA’s mission to Jupiter’s moon

Elon Musk’s aerospace firm SpaceX has been awarded a $178 million (£129 million) contract for NASA’s first mission to Europa, Jupiter’s fourth largest moon. 

SpaceX will provide ‘launch services’ for the Europa Clipper mission, which is due to blast off in October 2024 to study Europa through a series of fly-bys, NASA said. 

The spacecraft will launch on a Falcon Heavy rocket owned by Musk’s company from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the space agency added. 

The mission aims to find out if the natural satellite hosts conditions suitable for life using ‘a sophisticated suite of science instruments’.  

Europa, an icy moon with a hidden subsurface ocean, has a diameter of 1,940 miles (3,100 kilometres) – about 90 per cent the diameter of Earth’s moon. 

The announcement comes amid an ongoing battle between SpaceX and rival company Blue Origin, owned by fellow billionaire and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. 

Bezos published an open letter to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson on Monday, offering the NASA billions of dollars for a contract to build a lunar lander for the upcoming Artemis missions.  

There is evidence of recent geological formations within the 15 mile thick frozen crust, including small, dark and dome-like features about a mile below the surface

 

EUROPA: QUICK FACTS 

Europa is 90 per cent the size of Earth’s moon.

It orbits Jupiter at a distance of about 484 million miles (778 million kilometers).

It completes one orbit of Jupiter every 3.5 Earth days.

Europa’s surface is mostly solid water ice, crisscrossed by fractures.

But its subsurface ocean might contain more than twice as much water as Earth.

The moon has a very thin oxygen atmosphere – too thin for humans to breathe.

But SpaceX – which made the announcement on its Twitter page – has the contract for the Europa Clipper mission safe.

‘NASA has selected Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, California, to provide launch services for Earth’s first mission to conduct detailed investigations of Jupiter’s moon Europa,’ the agency said in a statement.

‘The total contract award amount for launch services is approximately $178 million.’

Key mission objectives are producing high-resolution images of Europa’s surface, determine its composition and look for signs of recent or ongoing geological activity.

The mission will also measure the thickness of the moon’s icy shell, search for subsurface lakes and determine the depth and salinity of Europa’s ocean.

Europa is one of few locations in the Solar System with liquid water, along with Earth and Saturn’s moon Enceladus, making it a target of interest for NASA. 

Thanks to ground-based telescopes, scientists already know Europa’s surface is mostly water ice.

Scientists have also found evidence that beneath the ice crust is an ocean of liquid water or slushy ice. 

According to NASA, Europa’s subsurface ocean might contain more than twice as much water as Earth. 

Last year, Monica Grady, Chancellor at Liverpool Hope University, said it’s ‘almost a racing certain’ that Europa is home to alien life, which she thinks is ‘similar to the intelligence of an octopus’.

A 3D model of Europa Clipper 

NASA will aim to find out if she’s correct with the launch of Europa Clipper, which will ‘send a highly capable, radiation-tolerant spacecraft into a long, looping orbit around Jupiter to perform repeated close flybys of the icy moon’. 

NASA did not reveal whether other companies had bid on the Europa Clipper launch contract, which marks NASA’s latest vote of confidence in Musk’s firm.

SpaceX has already carried several cargo payloads and astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) for the space agency in recent years.

In April, SpaceX was awarded a $2.9 billion contract to build the lunar lander spacecraft for the planned Artemis program that would carry NASA astronauts back to the moon for the first time since 1972.

But the contract was halted after two rival space companies, Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and defence contractor Dynetics Inc, protested against SpaceX’s selection.

SpaceX chief and renowned billionaire Elon Musk (pictured) also owns car maker Tesla,  neurotechnology firm

SpaceX chief and renowned billionaire Elon Musk (pictured) also owns car maker Tesla and neurotechnology firm Neuralink

Now Bezos is claiming NASA is ‘putting an end to meaningful competition for years to come’ if it doesn’t consider Blue Origin for contracts in the future.

‘It is not too late to remedy,’ Bezos says in the letter to NASA published on Monday (July 26). 

‘We stand ready to help NASA moderate its technical risks and solve its budgetary constraints and put the Artemis Program back on a more competitive, credible, and sustainable path.’ 

Jeff Bezos (pictured), founder of Amazon and space tourism company Blue Origin, flew into space on July 20, 2021

Jeff Bezos (pictured), founder of Amazon and space tourism company Blue Origin, flew into space on July 20, 2021

SpaceX’s partly reusable 23-story Falcon Heavy, currently the most powerful operational space launch vehicle in the world, flew its first commercial payload into orbit in 2019.

In May 2020, SpaceX successfully transported NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley on a 19-hour journey to the ISS – marking the first crewed test flight of the firm’s Crew Dragon spacecraft. 

In the process it became be the first crewed launch from the US into orbit since NASA’s space shuttle program ended in 2011.

NASA will land the first woman and next man on the moon in 2024 as part of the Artemis mission

Artemis was the twin sister of Apollo and goddess of the moon in Greek mythology. 

NASA has chosen her to personify its path back to the moon, which will see astronauts return to the lunar surface by 2024 –  including the first woman and the next man.

Artemis 1, formerly Exploration Mission-1, is the first in a series of increasingly complex missions that will enable human exploration to the moon and Mars. 

Artemis 1 will be the first integrated flight test of NASA’s deep space exploration system: the Orion spacecraft, Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and the ground systems at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.  

Artemis 1 will be an uncrewed flight that will provide a foundation for human deep space exploration, and demonstrate our commitment and capability to extend human existence to the moon and beyond. 

During this flight, the spacecraft will launch on the most powerful rocket in the world and fly farther than any spacecraft built for humans has ever flown.

It will travel 280,000 miles (450,600 km) from Earth, thousands of miles beyond the moon over the course of about a three-week mission. 

Artemis 1, formerly Exploration Mission-1, is the first in a series of increasingly complex missions that will enable human exploration to the moon and Mars. This graphic explains the various stages of the mission

Artemis 1, formerly Exploration Mission-1, is the first in a series of increasingly complex missions that will enable human exploration to the moon and Mars. This graphic explains the various stages of the mission

Orion will stay in space longer than any ship for astronauts has done without docking to a space station and return home faster and hotter than ever before. 

With this first exploration mission, NASA is leading the next steps of human exploration into deep space where astronauts will build and begin testing the systems near the moon needed for lunar surface missions and exploration to other destinations farther from Earth, including Mars. 

The will take crew on a different trajectory and test Orion’s critical systems with humans aboard.

The SLS rocket will from an initial configuration capable of sending more than 26 metric tons to the moon, to a final configuration that can send at least 45 metric tons. 

Together, Orion, SLS and the ground systems at Kennedy will be able to meet the most challenging crew and cargo mission needs in deep space.

Eventually NASA seeks to establish a sustainable human presence on the moon by 2028 as a result of the Artemis mission.

The space agency hopes this colony will uncover new scientific discoveries, demonstrate new technological advancements and lay the foundation for private companies to build a lunar economy. 

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