NASA cites Falcon flight heritage to select SpaceX to launch Europa Clipper

On Friday, July 23, NASA announced that SpaceX was the winner of a commercial procurement to launch the Europa Clipper mission, which will closely study the icy Galilean moon of Jupiter in search of signs of life and/or ongoing geological activity. The mission is due to launch no earlier than October 2024.

SpaceX’s heavy-lift Falcon Heavy rocket, which has been flown three times since its debut in February 2018 and currently maintains a 100% launch success record, was the vehicle of choice to launch Europa Clipper. A source selection document released this week revealed that Falcon Heavy was selected over one other bidder: United Launch Alliance’s yet unflown Vulcan launch vehicle.

NASA’s Launch Services Program (LSP) at Kennedy Space Center will handle management of Europa Clipper’s launch service. The total contract value, including the launch and other mission-related costs, is approximately $178 million.

The Europa Clipper spacecraft, designed to perform multiple close flybys of the smallest Galilean moon while in orbit around Jupiter, will weigh in at around 6,065 kilograms when fully fueled and stands six meters tall. The probe features two large solar panels provided by Airbus Defence and Space, and will carry a host of scientific instruments such as the Europa Thermal Emission Imaging System (E-THEMIS). Spacecraft manufacturing is being handled by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The Europa Clipper spacecraft undergoing assembly and testing – credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL

For a number of years, the spacecraft was bookmarked to fly on a cargo version of the super heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS) Block 1 rocket, as mandated by the United States Congress. However, other vehicles would be allowed to launch Europa Clipper at NASA’s request due to a lack of available SLS core stages.

In December 2020, NASA was required to use SLS to launch the Europa Clipper mission, with the stipulations that a core would be available and that torsional loading analyses confirmed that the spacecraft was safe to fly on the Block 1 Cargo vehicle. An open commercial contract would be conducted if these conditions could not be met.

Ultimately, it was deemed that neither of the aforementioned conditions were met, and NASA thus began requesting proposals for commercial launch services for Europa Clipper. In January 2021, the mission team was formally directed to halt work on maintaining compatibility with SLS and move forward with a commercial vehicle.

According to the source selection statement for the Europa Clipper launch contract, NASA initially received responses from three parties per interest in competing for the award, with two of them being SpaceX and United Launch Services (ULS), the governmental contracting subsidiary of United Launch Alliance (ULA). It is unclear which company represented the third of the potential offerors, but based on the missions requirements, Blue Origin‘s upcoming New Glenn rocket is the most likely candidate.

SpaceX and ULS both submitted formal and timely proposals to NASA, with SpaceX offering the capabilities of their Falcon Heavy rocket and ULS bidding an unspecified configuration of the Vulcan Centaur launch vehicle, which is currently in the latter stages of development and is expected to make its debut flight no earlier than 2022.

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy lifts off from LC-39A to begin the STP-2 mission in June 2019 – credit: Brady Kenniston for NSF

After evaluation, it was decided that SpaceX would be awarded the contract, mainly on account of the “extensive hardware commonality” between the Falcon Heavy rocket and the company’s workhorse Falcon 9, as well as their performance on past and recent contract acquisitions.

NASA assigned SpaceX one strength and nine weaknesses in their Europa Clipper contract proposal, with no significant strengths nor significant weaknesses identified. It was determined that the weaknesses in mission suitability were outweighed by Falcon Heavy’s flight heritage and common configuration as “appreciable mitigations” for risk regarding the execution of the launch service.

United Launch Services’ Vulcan Centaur rocket was ultimately not selected to launch Europa Clipper. The company’s proposal was considered on account of a “Good” management rating and their past contract performance, such that NASA gave them a “High Level of Confidence” rating for the Europa Clipper award.

However, that was largely overshadowed by the combination of a lower technical rating and a number of weaknesses identified within the ULS proposal.

United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur rocket in flight, post-SRM separation – credit: Mack Crawford for NSF/L2

Overall, NASA assigned United Launch Services one deficiency, four significant weaknesses, and twelve other weaknesses, with no strengths (significant or otherwise) being identified. These included an unviable certification schedule, an uncertainty in launch vehicle performance capability, and an inability to achieve the first flight of the vehicle block upgrade required to launch Europa Clipper prior to October 2023 – a deficiency that NASA noted was “a material failure of the proposal to meet a critical risk reduction requirement.”

Bid pricing for the contract was also a factor, as ULS’ total evaluated cost to launch the Europa Clipper mission was “substantially higher” than SpaceX’s, who won with a total proposed price of $178,322,196.

Europa Clipper is set to launch within a 21-day window that is currently slated to open no earlier than October 10, 2024, with liftoff taking place from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The spacecraft will utilize two gravity assists – one via Mars in February 2025 and another via Earth in December 2026 – to optimize its trajectory for arrival at Europa by April 2030.

Once in orbit around Jupiter, Europa Clipper will begin its four year science mission that will see the spacecraft perform up to 44 close flybys of the moon, in order to gather large amounts of data on Europa’s surface, subsurface oceans, and interior. This data could help scientists understand whether the moon is suitable for habitability.

Artist’s impression of Europa Clipper performing one of many close flybys of Europa – credit: NASA

NASA is also investigating the possibility of using Europa Clipper for detailed reconnaissance to aid in the selection of a landing site for a future Europa lander, which was an add-on component of the Clipper mission until 2017. However, not much is known regarding NASA’s current plans to launch a lander as a complement to Europa Clipper’s mission operations.

The acquisition of the Europa Clipper launch contract is the latest addition to a growing manifest of missions for SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy. This includes the launch of NASA’s Psyche orbiter to the asteroid 16 Psyche, as well as the dual-launch of the Power & Propulsion Element (PPE) and Habitation & Logistics Outpost (HALO) modules, both of which form the core of the Gateway station designed to support Artemis missions to the surface of the Moon.

The next launch of the Falcon Heavy is currently set for no earlier than October of this year, with two satellites serving as the payload. This mission, designated USSF-44, will be a classified launch for the United States Space Force. Two more USSF missions utilizing Falcon Heavy’s performance are currently slated to take place in 2022.

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