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NASA receives feedback on launch choices for the Europa Clipper

For its Europa Clipper mission, NASA has released an application for information on the launch facilities, an indication that the organization is taking advantage of wording in a new appropriations bill that requires it to explore solutions to the Space Launch System. The information request for January 26 requires input from businesses who agree they have vehicles that can launch the mission, that will go into orbit around Jupiter as well as make hundreds of close encounters to the icy, possibly habitable moon Europa. The spacecraft, measuring a minimum of 6,065 kilograms, will also need to have the capacity to deploy the launch vehicle on a trajectory that would include gravity-assist flyovers of Earth and Mars before approaching Jupiter.

In October 2024, the launch will take place within a three-week timeframe. Europa Clipper project authorities introduced a plan for one such course at a July 2020 presentation to the National Academies Committee. Flyovers of Mars in 2025 February and Earth in 2026 December, with the space shuttle joining orbit around Jupiter in 2030 April, will follow a deployment in 2024 October. The briefing reported which Launch Services Program of NASA had decided that a trajectory via a “commercial alternative” for the launch vehicle was possible. For the Europa Clipper mission, the SLS was the chosen vehicle since it could bring Jupiter spacecraft even more efficiently.

In August 2024, the same presentation identified a launch timeframe that would bring the spaceship to Jupiter in less than three years, without any need for the flybys, utilizing SLS. In the latest budget plans, NASA tried to deploy the Europa Clipper on the SLS instead of a commercial vehicle. It claimed that this would spare the agency close to over $1.5 billion as well as free up the SLS vehicles to be used in the human lunar exploration program of Artemis. However, Congress required SLS utilization for the Europa Clipper via the financial year 2020 in the appropriations bills. In August, when the NASA agency announced it was studying “potential hardware compatibility problems” between SLSS as well as Europa Clipper, another element in the launch vehicle discussion arose.

The agency did not expand on the particular difficulties that the satellite would face during launch, assumed to be correlated with vibrations as well as other environmental influences. Congress, approved last month in the financial year 2021 omnibus budget bill, gave NASA certain leverage on Europa Clipper launch. The bill again ordered the utilization of SLS for this mission, but unless “the SLS is accessible and if Clipper’s acceptability for SLS has been verified by torsional loading evaluation.” The latter criterion applies to the problems of the hardware compatibility previously stated by NASA.

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