The Europa Clipper mission was initially to be launched by NASA’s massive SLS rocket in 2024. In the end, agency officials opted for a commercial solution, with NASA’s rocket not yet offering all guarantees. required. And inevitably, the travel time will not be the same at all.
In 2019, NASA confirmed its intention to explore Europe. We do know that the moon shelters under its surface a global ocean a priori salty. However, it is not yet known whether this water is capable of supporting life. To try to determine this, the NASA prepare a baptized mission Europa Clipper.
The idea is to send a probe into the Jovian system for four years where it can perform several tens of low-level overflights of Europe (from 2,700 to 25 kilometers of altitude), studying its icy surface with each passage.
Another major objective of the mission will be to take detailed images of the moon’s surface. In this way, the researchers will be able to select possible sites for a further exploration project in the future.
From SLS to a private launcher
It was normally expected that the probe would be launched in 2024 by the SLS launcher of NASA which must bring back humans on the moon as part of the Artemis program. At least, that’s what the US Congress originally dictated. If that had been the case, the probe should have arrived in the Jovian system about three years later.
However, delays in the SLS test campaign (not to mention cost overruns) eventually caused NASA’s planetary mission program to change their plan. The mission will therefore no longer be launched by the SLS, but by a private rocket according to project manager Bob Pappalardo. On the other hand, the first available SLS vehicles will be used as part of the Artemis program.
While Congress’ initial proposal stipulated that SLS should be used “when available”, it had indeed left the door open to a commercial alternative.
It is not yet known which company will be chosen. NASA in fact leaves itself about a year to decide. A priori, the “match” should be played Heavy falcon from SpaceX and the Delta IV heavy, from United Launch Alliance.
A journey almost twice as long
Whichever rocket you choose, Clipper’s journey to Jupiter will ultimately be very different from what it would have been with an SLS. The NASA heavy launcher would indeed have allowed to launch the probe on a direct trajectory, with an expected arrival less than three years after take-off.
The other launchers available are not rugged enough for this travel plan. Also, rather than taking a direct path, the mission will have to carry out overflights of Mars and Earth (gravitational assistance), in February 2025 and December 2026, respectively, to allow it to gain speed.
In this way, the probe will not arrive less than three years after its take-off, but about five and a half years later, between 2029 and 2020.