NASA is giving SpaceX $178 million to launch its mission to a Jupiter moon that could harbor alien life

europa clipper illustration shows spacecraft flying above icy moon with jupiter in background
This illustration, updated in December 2020, depicts NASA’s Europa Clipper spacecraft.

NASA has chosen SpaceX to launch its next alien-hunting mission to a Jupiter moon.

The mission, called Europa Clipper, is designed to fly past Jupiter’s moon Europa 45 times, getting as close as 16 miles above its surface. Scientists believe the moon conceals a global ocean beneath its icy crust, and alien life could thrive deep within it.

NASA announced Friday that it set a date for the mission and awarded the $178 million launch contract to SpaceX. Now Europa Clipper is scheduled to blast off aboard the company’s Falcon Heavy rocket in October 2024.

falcon heavy rocket launches engines firing through grey skies
A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket launches on a demonstration flight from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Europa Clipper’s main objective is to determine whether Europa could host life at all. It aims to take high-resolution images of the moon’s surface, chart the composition and thickness of its icy crust, look for lakes below the surface, and measure the depth and saltiness of the ocean below.

The spacecraft could even fly through plumes of water vapor that shoot through Europa’s ice, since those are known to crest more than 100 miles above the surface. This water seems to come from the ocean below, and it could contain signs of life.

The reason Europa can keep water in a liquid state is that it follows an oval-shaped orbit around Jupiter. The giant planet’s gravity stretches and relaxes the moon, and that friction warms Europa’s deep underground salt water, keeping it liquid. The warmth from that process could also allow the moon to harbor deep-sea ecosystems.

SpaceX is becoming a NASA favorite

SpaceX, the rocket company Elon Musk founded in 2002, is not in the business of studying other planets. But it is in the business of launching things for NASA, and the agency is awarding the company more and more opportunities to do so.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk smiles in front of a blue background
Elon Musk founded SpaceX in 2002.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship flew NASA astronauts to the International Space Station last year. It was the first time the US has launched its own astronauts since the Space Shuttle Program ended in 2011. SpaceX is now regularly ferrying astronauts to and from the space station.

In April, NASA awarded SpaceX a contract to turn its in-development Starship megarocket into a lunar lander. The agency said Starship is set to land astronauts on the moon in 2024 (though that timeline may be unrealistic). That would be the first human moon landing since the Apollo missions ended in 1972.

The decision prompted challenges from competing rocket makers Blue Origin and Dynetics since the original plan was for NASA to pick two of the three companies for lunar-lander contracts. The protests required NASA to order that SpaceX stop work on the lunar lander.

SpaceX didn’t win its new Europa Clipper contract without contest, either. According to Eric Berger, a senior space editor for Ars Technica, Congress has spent years urging NASA to launch the mission aboard its own Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. But legislators finally relented due to delays in the launch system’s development, its high cost, and a recent technical issue that would require $1 billion to correct, Berger reported.

According to Berger, NASA could save nearly $2 billion by launching the mission aboard Falcon Heavy instead of SLS.

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SpaceX’s Starlink: Everything you need to know about Elon Musk’s internet service

Elon Musk
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.

  • Starlink is SpaceX’s broadband service that beams down internet from satellites launched into orbit.
  • Since its launch in October, it has more than 10,000 users and operates in more than six countries.
  • Here’s everything you need to know about Elon Musk’s Starlink.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Elon Musk is inching ever closer to fulfiling his dream of creating super-fast internet around the world, which beams down from satellites in orbit to Earth.

In the past two weeks, SpaceX’s Starlink internet has reached more than 10,000 users worldwide and started offering $99 preorders of the service to more countries and cities on a global scale.

Starlink’s public beta test, known as “Better Than Nothing Beta,” launched in October and has been a big hit with those living in remote areas of northern US, where it was first rolled out.

What’s the hype about Starlink?

SpaceX is building an expansive satellite internet network in space called Starlink

The aerospace company launched its first batch of Starlink satellites into orbit in May 2019. Now, it has over 1,000 working satellites prepped for the service. The goal is to have up to 42,000 satellites in orbit by mid-2027.

The satellites are strapped onto the top of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and blasted into orbit, usually releasing 60 satellites per launch.

The goal is to create a high-speed broadband system generated by satellites which envelope Earth and provide internet to people especially in rural areas without connection.

spacex falcon 9 rocket launch starlink internet satellites 13th mission cape canaveral florida beach family GettyImages 1228923231 edit
Spectators watch from Canaveral National Seashore as a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying 60 Starlink satellites launches.

Starlink isn’t cheap

A subscription to the beta is currently $99 a month. It costs a further $499 for the Starlink kit, which includes a mounting tripod, a WiFi router, and a terminal to connect to the satellites.

On Monday, the company began offering preorders of Starlink to other countries so users can now put down a $100 deposit to get their hands on the service once it becomes available. The deposit will be applied to the amount due on the Starlink kit.

Overall users will be paying $600 upfront for Starlink.

Users the UK are paying £439 for the kit and £89 for the subscription fee. Compared to other internet providers that charge £79 per month for speeds of up to 516 Mbps, this isn’t cheap.

On the SpaceX side, the company in December won $885 million in federal subsidies to expand Starlink, but small internet service providers say this shouldn’t be allowed because Musk’s firm is using “unproven” technology.

spacex starlink user terminal phased array consumer satellite internet dish antenna ufo on a stick roof los angeles california website
A photo of SpaceX’s Starlink user terminal, or satellite dish, installed on a roof. Company founder Elon Musk has called such devices “UFOs on a stick,” and they’re designed to connect to the internet via a fleet of orbiting spacecraft.

The fastest speed recorded so far is 215 Mbps

SpaceX said in an email to Starlink beta test subscribers in October that they should expect speeds between 50 and 150 Mbps, with intermittent outages. But some users are hitting much higher speeds.

A list compiled by Reddit’s Starlink community shows the fastest download speed so far was 209.17 Mbps, recorded in New York. One person in Utah recorded in December their speed test showing 215 Mbps.

Starlink has even reached speeds of 175 Mbps in freezing temperatures, high winds and snow. Users have been impressed with the terminal heating up enough to melt any snow or frost on top of it.

Snow is melting on the Starlink user terminal
Snow melting on Starlink terminal.

It’s available to preorder in six countries

Starlink was initially operating in parts of the northern USsouthern Canada, and, most recently, in the UK.

On Monday, Starlink began opening up preorders to other parts of the world. 

People in Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, and parts of the US and Canada – where Starlink is not yet up and running – confirmed on Twitter and Reddit they were able to put down a deposit to get the internet service in mid to late 2021.

Read more: Here’s how many millions of users Starlink may need to break even if it loses $2,000 for every satellite dish it sells, according to experts

More countries could green-light Starlink this year, including Spain, Italy, India, Japan and the Caribbean, according to a report from Teslarati

Insider explained Tuesday how to sign up for the service which works on “first-come, first-served basis.”

starlink satellite internet spacex smartphone phone trcker logo illustration GettyImages 1229328429
A photo illustration of a satellite-tracking app showing one of SpaceX’s Starlink internet-beaming spacecraft on a map of Earth.

Starlink has helped rural communities get online

SpaceX agreed in October to provide internet to a rural school district in Texas next year via Starlink. A total of 45 families will get internet access in the area, followed by an additional 90 families later on.

Scott Muri, the district’s superintendent, told Insider he agreed to the deal because so many students’ families have “zero internet” and no conventional way to get it.

Then in December, SpaceX connected up Pikangikum First Nation, a remote 3,000-person indigenous community in north-western Ontario, to Starlink. Before the internet service, Pikangikum couldn’t offer higher education or healthcare, and struggled with high suicide rates. Now, they’re able to access everything.

Dave Brown, CEO of FSET, the company that linked up SpaceX and Pikangikum, said in an interview with Insider: “We took a community that was one of the most technologically disadvantaged anywhere in the world. They’ve now become one of the most technologically advanced, yet are still remote, living where they are and not having to move.”

Have you setup Starlink recently? How are you finding it? Get in touch with this reporter via email: kduffy@insider.com.

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