One of the places in our solar system that scientists have hopes of harboring extraterrestrial life is Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter. To learn more about the icy moon, NASA is gearing up to launch the Europa Clipper mission. Originally, that mission was to be launched aboard the Space Launch System known as SLS.
However, a few days ago, NASA confirmed during a presentation meeting of its Outer Planets Assessment Group that leaders of the Europa Clipper project decided to consider only commercial launch vehicles for the mission. That means the end of support for launch aboard the SLS.
Europa Clipper project scientist Robert Pappalardo said during the meeting that the team has “clarity” on the launch vehicle path and launch date. The clarity came from the NASA Planetary Missions Program Office with an order to immediately cease efforts to maintain SLS compatibility and to move forward with a commercial launch vehicle.
That decision likely means that either SpaceX or Boeing will use their commercial vehicles to launch the mission when the time comes. In the past, NASA was directed by Congress to launch the Europa Clipper using the SLS with provision for that in the annual spending bill. NASA had requested flexibility to use an alternative launch vehicle, saying that it needed the SLS to support the Artemis moon mission.
NASA said that using a commercial vehicle to launch Clipper could save as much as $1.5 billion. A potential hardware compatibility issue between the spacecraft and the SLS was discovered last year. One downside to using a commercial launch vehicle is that it will take longer for Europa Clipper to arrive at Jupiter.