by Douglas Messier
In a blow to Space Launch System (SLS) backers, NASA has issued a request for information (RFI) for the October 2024 launch of the Europa Clipper orbiter that will search for signs of life on Jupiter’s enigmatic, ice-covered moon Europa.
It’s a clear sign that NASA is seeking commercial alternatives to launching the spacecraft on SLS. Congress had previously mandated by law that Europa Clipper’s orbiter and a follow-up lander be launched on the massive rocket. However, the most recent spending law stipulated that NASA should use SLS if one is available.
NASA is seeking information about launchers that would be available for a 21-day launch window that runs from Oct. 10-24, 2024.
“The launch vehicle shall deliver a minimum 6065 kg Europa Clipper spacecraft (SC) with Mars-Earth-Gravity-Assist (MEGA) trajectory characteristics as follows: C3 value of 41.69km2/sec2 and a DLA range of 30-32 degrees,” the RFI said.
NASA has designated Europa Clipper as a Class A payload, which the space agency reserves for its highest priority and most expensive missions. Examples of other Class A payloads include the Hubble Space Telescope, James Webb Space Telescope and the Cassini spacecraft that explored Saturn.
“An offerors proposed common launch vehicle configuration shall have a minimum of three (minimum two consecutive) successful flights prior to launch of Europa Clipper,” the RFI said.
Europa Clipper will conduct the first detailed survey of Jupiter’s frozen moon, searching for signs of an ocean and possible life beneath its ice covered surface.
“The Europa Clipper will explore Europa and investigate its habitability utilizing a set of five remote sensing instruments that cover the spectrum from thermal emission through the ultraviolet, four in-situ fields and particles instruments, a two-channel radar, and a gravity science investigation,” the RFI said.
“Key mission objectives will be to produce high-resolution images of Europa’s surface, determine its composition, look for signs of recent or ongoing activity, measure the thickness of the icy shell, search for subsurface lakes, and determine the depth and salinity of Europa’s ocean,” the document added.