A mandate to fly NASA & # 39; s mission to Europe with a delayed rocket can cost an extra $ 1 billion

The Inspector General of NASA is insist on Congress to reconsider a mandate specify which rocket the forthcoming space agency mission to Jupiter & # 39; s Europe must fly on. At present, NASA is legally obliged to fly the mission on the next large rocket that the space agency is developing, known as the Space Launch System or SLS. But that vehicle is not ready for years, and the Inspector General claims that changing the rocket to another that is already in use can save taxpayers up to $ 1 billion.


NASA's mission to Europe is currently scheduled for launch in 2023, and it will try to get the closest view of the Jovian moon. The project will allow a robotic spacecraft to fly several times close to the icy moon to get a better understanding of what may be under the surface of the earth. A saltwater ocean is thought to be lurking beneath the crust of Europe, and scientists have long wondered if a kind of life could live there.

This mission – known as the Europa Clipper – has received much attention from Congress, in particular from the former Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), a major Europe buff who provided financing for the past decade. One way Culberson did this was by linking the launch of the mission to the SLS, according to a report Scientific American. The SLS has very powerful supporters in Congress, especially those from Alabama where much of the rocket is being built. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) is the chairman of the credit committee, which puts him in a good position to help secure funding for NASA projects.

By making it legislative that Europa Clipper must fly on SLS, Culberson has helped to get strong allies for the project to get the necessary funding, according to Scientific American. In the 2016 budget, Congress has ordered that Europe Clipper be launched on top of the SLS in 2022, followed by a Europe lander in 2024, which will also be launched on the SLS. The 2019 budget law delayed the launch of each mission by one year, but it still stipulated that they had to fly on the SLS.

An artistic representation of the Space Launch System.
Image: NASA

When completed, the SLS will be the most powerful rocket in the world, making it an ideal option to launch Europa Clipper, a fairly heavy spacecraft that needs a lot of power to reach Jupiter. However, the rocket is not very good at meeting deadlines. The vehicle was once planned for launch in 2017, but its debut flight has always been pushed back. Now it probably won't fly for the first time until 2021. That inaugural flight will send an unscrewed capsule around the moon. The next flight will take place approximately two years later when the vehicle will fly with people for the first time.

This delayed timeline is a headache for the Europa Clipper and his mandated rocket. After the first two test flights, the third launch of the SLS is supposed to be a big one: a journey to send people back to the moon under the Artemis program from NASA. That mission must take place no later than 2024, thanks to a major challenge from Vice President Mike Pence.

All this means that an SLS for Europe Clipper will probably not be ready until 2025, according to Paul Martin, NASA's Inspector General, who wrote a letter to Shelby and other legislators responsible for financing the space agency. If NASA is to use the SLS for the mission, the Europa Clipper spacecraft is likely to be put in storage for up to two years, which costs around $ 3 to $ 5 million a month. Storage would probably also be required even if an SLS would somehow be ready by 2023. Due to the alignment of Earth and Jupiter in 2023, the mission has a very small window in July that it must meet when flying on the SLS. It is possible that the Clipper can only be launched later in the year in 2023, so that it will miss the window and require storage until the next opportunity.


Adding costs is the fact that the SLS is also the most expensive option for launch. There are currently two other commercial vehicles that are powerful and capable enough to operate the Europa Clipper spacecraft: the Falcon Heavy, which is operated by SpaceX, and the Delta IV Heavy, which is operated by the United Launch Alliance. The Delta IV Heavy has been flying for 15 years, while the Falcon Heavy has flown three times, which is sufficient to meet "NASA & # 39; s minimum requirements to qualify for the Europe mission," says Martin. An analysis of the Europa Clipper mission showed that the SLS would cost $ 700 million more than one of these options.

Image: SpaceX and Image: ULA

The only thing that does the SLS good is power. A launch on top of the SLS would bring the spacecraft directly to Europe within 2.4 years. The less powerful commercial options would increase the transit time to nearly six years because the spacecraft would have to swing through other planets to collect more speed for the journey. However, NASA has looked at adding upgrades to the Falcon Heavy that can help shorten the journey. But above all, the commercial vehicles are ready to fly, and they can start when Europa Clipper is ready. An evaluation board has determined that the mission will probably be ready by November 2023, the month in which it should start if it flies on one of the two commercial vehicles. Flying on the SLS also means that Europa Clipper does not fly until the mid-2020s, which means that every turnaround time that the rocket can offer is canceled.


Given all these comments, Martin says Congress needs to make a change, and that must happen now. Sometimes it takes years to buy one of these rockets, especially for a big mission like this. And the Europa Clipper team needs to know which vehicle it uses to tune the missile mission. When NASA starts using a commercial rocket, Martin claims that the agency should start the process in the coming months to meet the 2023 deadline.

He says Congress should have NASA call. "We urge Congress to consider removing the requirement that NASA launch the Europa Clipper on an SLS and allow the agency to decide whether an SLS or a commercial vehicle will be used based on costs, planning, vehicle availability and impact on scientific requirements. " Now it is up to the owners to decide.

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