Europa Clipper should launch off a commercial spacecraft for a cost-effective measure in a schedule-fit time

NASA’s inspector general says that the Europa Clipper mission should be allowed to consider commercial space companies to deliver its probe on one of Jupiter’s moons to cut down on costs and an earlier and more secure launch date.

The Europa Clipper is a highly anticipated mission to send a probe over one of Jupiter’s moons, Europa.

It would help determine the existence of water beneath the sheet of water-ice covering the moon’s surface. Ultimately, confirming the possibility for the moon to host life or if it had done so in the past.

Upon the approval of Congress for the mission, they have mandated that it should launch atop the currently being constructed Space Launch System (SLS) mega rocket by NASA.

Along with that, Europa Clipper is set to launch once SLS is finished at a tentative 2023 launch. However, in an August 27 letter to the chairs and ranking members of both the full Senate Appropriations Committee and its commerce, justice and science subcommittee, NASA Inspector General Paul Martin said that this might not be the most cost-effective and secure option for the probe.

Martin says that NASA could be able to save nearly $1 billion if Congress allows the space agency to start looking into other options such as making the probe ride atop a commercial spacecraft instead.

“Given all of the foregoing factors, we urge Congress to consider removing the requirement that NASA launch the Europa Clipper on an SLS and allow the Agency to decide whether to use an SLS or a commercial vehicle based on cost, schedule, vehicle availability and impact on science requirements,” he said in the letter.

Particularly, Martin was referring to the current progress of the SLS megarockets and the prioritization of the highly anticipated 2024 Artemis mission—which is set to bring man back and the first woman to the moon.

“NASA’s renewed focus on returning humans to the Moon on an accelerated timetable means that an SLS will not be available to launch the Clipper mission to Europa before 2025 at the earliest,” he wrote in the conclusion of the seven-page letter.

Martin indicated that the team from the Europa Clipper mission intends to finish the satellite by 2023—which is its currently slated date for launch—even though all three of the SLS rockets will prioritize Artemis.

Consequently, this will force NASA to temporarily put the probe in storage for up to two years at an estimated cost of $3 million to $5 million per month.

Tuesday’s letter also serves as a follow-up to a report into the Europa Clipper and Europa lander missions that the OIG released in May. That report determined that both projects will be facing challenges, particularly in financing the last leg of the mission and scheduling.

“Our audit found that, despite robust early-stage funding, NASA’s aggressive development schedule, a stringent conflict of interest process during instrument selection, an insufficient evaluation of cost and schedule estimates, and technical workforce shortages have increased instrument integration challenges and development risks for the Clipper mission,” John Schulz, an OIG management analyst, said in a video released with the May report.

As a workaround, Martin suggested in his August letter that the Europa Clipper satellite should be able to consider pre-existing commercial vehicles such as SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket and United Launch Alliance’s Delta IV Heavy.

Notably, if NASA does receive the chance to do so, it will also be recognizing the fact that it will be able to reach Jupiter’s moon in nearly 6 years because unlike the SLS megarocket’s 2.4-year travel time, the commercial spacecraft would require a roundabout trajectory that takes advantage of planetary “gravity assists.”

In terms of costs, however, choosing the commercial route would save the agency $250 million, which is intended to be spent in reserves “to cover the storage, personnel, and other associated launch delay costs.”

Furthermore, the nearly $1 billion savings also account the $700 million that would be spent if SLS launch was to push through,

However, the audit published in May concluded that savings could be less than $300 million when accounting for the longer travel time, and thus operations costs, of launching Europa Clipper on a Delta 4 Heavy or Falcon Heavy.

Nevertheless, being able to work with commercial companies still holds out a more positive outcome for the Europa Clipper mission where it can secure a 2023 launch or whenever the satellite can finish.

A decision, Martin indicated, however, needs to be made “in the next few months” so that NASA has time to procure a commercial launch vehicle in time for a 2023 launch.

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