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It has been years of speculation of when NASA's $4.25B Europa Clipper would be launched, but NASA officials announced on Friday, July 23, that it would be sent to the icy moon of Jupiter via SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket with a total contract value of $178 million.

Europa Clipper is expected to be lift-off in October 2024 if all goes according to plan from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The spacecraft is expected to reach Jupiter's icy moon Europa by April 2030.

This project is said to be the space agency's most important Solar System exploration mission of the 2030s, according to ARS Technica. Europa Clipper is set to conduct an in-depth study of Jupiter's icy moon during nearly 50 close flybys for four Earth years.

 $4.25B Europa Clipper Spacecraft is Going to Jupiter's Icy Moon Aboard Falcon Heavy, NASA Announced
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
This artist's rendering shows NASA's Europa mission spacecraft, which is being developed for a launch sometime in the 2020s. This view shows the spacecraft configuration, which could change before launch as of early 2016. The concept image shows two large solar arrays extending from the sides of the spacecraft, to which the mission's ice-penetrating radar antennas are attached. A saucer-shaped high-gain antenna is also side-mounted, with a magnetometer boom placed next to it. On the forward end of the spacecraft (left in this view) is a remote-sensing palette, which houses the rest of the science instrument payload. The nominal mission would perform at least 45 flybys of Europa at altitudes varying from 1,700 miles to 16 miles (2,700 kilometers to 25 kilometers) above the surface. This view takes artistic liberty with Jupiter's position in the sky relative to Europa and the spacecraft.

Europa Clipper Aboard SpaceX's Falcon Heavy

Awarding NASA's highly anticipated mission to SpaceX is a significant moment for Elon Musk's company as it will be entrusted with one of the space agency's highest-priority exploration missions. But this contract is also beneficial for NASA because they will be saving $2 billion, according to the news outlet.

Originally, it was planned that the spacecraft would be launched via the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, but delays to the rocket have prevented the space agency from going with the original plan.

The selection of launch vehicle for Europa Clipper has been subjected to a long political process. But many scientists preferred SpaceX for a variety of reasons.

One, the company offered launch services at a steep discount compared to the SLS rocket that saves the space agency a lot of money for the mission. Also, scientists were becoming more concerned with the delays of the SLS rocket. They fear that it will not be ready for the 2024 launch date of Europa Clipper and might only cause further delay to the mission.

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Europa Clipper Mission

According to NASA, scientists are almost certain that a vast ocean lies beneath the icy shell of Europa. The icy moon is also regarded as one of the Solar System's bets to host alien life.

Europa Clipper's mission is to characterize the ocean and ice shell and look for good and safe places to land a life-hunting spacecraft. This was the mission that the US Congress has directed NASA to develop, Space.com reported.

The Europa Clipper's objectives are to produce high-quality images of the icy moon's surface so that scientists could determine its composition, ongoing geological activity, the thickness of the moon's icy shell, subsurface lakes, the salinity of Europa's ocean, and whether it was suitable to host for life.

The mission's launch service will be managed by NASA's Launch Services Program. The development of the Europa Clipper mission is a collaboration work between NASA's JPL in Southern California and Johns Hopkins Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. The mission will be managed by the Planetary Missions Program Office at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

RELATED ARTICLE: Why Did NASA Skip Their Missions to Jupiter, Neptune Moons?

Check out more news and information on Jupiter on Science Times.