NASA has selected SpaceX to launch a planned voyage to Jupiter's icy moon Europa, the space agency said on Friday. The news comes as a huge win for Elon Musk's company as it sets its sights deeper into the solar system.
NASA plans to launch the Europa Clipper mission in October 2024 on a Falcon Heavy rocket from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The total contract is worth $178 million, AFP reported.
The mission was previously supposed to take off on NASA's own Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, which has been plagued by delays and cost overruns, with critics calling it a "jobs program" for the state of Alabama where much of the development work is taking place.
While SLS is yet to become operational, Falcon Heavy has deployed on both commercial and government missions since its maiden flight in 2018 when it carried Musk's own Tesla Roadster into space.
The SpaceX rocket generates more than five million pounds of thrust (22 million Newtons) at liftoff, equal to approximately eighteen 747 aircraft.
The Europa clipper orbiter is slated to make about 40 to 50 close passes over Europa to determine whether the icy moon could harbor conditions suitable for life.
Its payload will include cameras and spectrometers to produce high-resolution images and compositional maps of the surface and atmosphere, as well as radar to penetrate the ice layer to search for liquid water below.
SpaceX has launched rockets from the Falcon family 126 times over 11 years, resulting in 124 full mission successes (98.41%), one partial success (SpaceX CRS-1 delivered its cargo to the International Space Station (ISS), but a secondary payload was stranded in a lower-than-planned orbit), and one failure (the SpaceX CRS-7 spacecraft was lost in flight). Additionally, one rocket was destroyed before launch in preparation for an on-pad static fire test.