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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Astronomers spotted a distant planet in the middle of making its own moon

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The PDS 70 system, located nearly 400 light-years away and still in the process of being formed, with planet PDS 70c circled in blue.

For the first time, astronomers have captured an alien moon in the making.

Two enormous Jupiter-like planets are orbiting a star about 400 light-years away – and one of them seems to be forming a moon. Researchers aimed the radio dishes of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) at the distant planetary system and captured a ring of material surrounding the planet.

That “disc” is exactly how astronomers think moons form. A planet’s gravity captures surrounding dust and gas, then its rotation whips that material into a spinning disc. Over time, the dust and gas falls together into moons. Astronomers still don’t fully understand how this process works, so they could learn a lot from studying this planet.

Similarly, the star itself has a disc – material that could one day coalesce into new planets.

“These new observations are also extremely important to prove theories of planet formation that could not be tested until now,” Jaehan Bae, a researcher at the Earth and Planets Laboratory of the Carnegie Institution for Science, who co-authored the study, said in a press release.

The first image, above, shows the star at the center of the disc. The system is called PDS 70, and the planet with the moon disc is called PDS 70c.

The planet’s moon-making halo, captured below, is about the width of the distance between Earth and the sun. That’s about 500 times larger than Saturn’s rings.

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The planet PDS 70c and its disc.

The disc contains enough material to make three moons the size of our own moon, according to the astronomers, who published their research in The Astrophysical Journal Letters on Thursday.

“In short, it is still unclear when, where, and how planets and moons form,” Stefano Facchini, a co-author of the study and research fellow at the European Southern Observatory, said in the release. “This system therefore offers us a unique opportunity to observe and study the processes of planet and satellite formation.”

The other planet circling this star does not show signs of a disc. The researchers said this could indicate that the moon-disc planet gobbled up all the available material, starving its twin. In addition to forming moons, the disc is likely helping the planet grow larger as material slowly falls into it.

The researchers plan to look at this star and its disc-adorned planet more closely with the Extremely Large Telescope, still under construction in Chile’s Atacama Desert. Once built, it will be the largest visible- and infrared-light telescope on Earth.

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A mesmerizing NASA video lets you ride with the Juno spacecraft as it flies by Jupiter and its largest moon

NASA's Juno spacecraft in orbit above JupiterÕs Great Red Spot is seen in this undated handout illustration obtained by Reuters July 11, 2017.  NASA/JPL-Caltech/Handout via REUTERS
An illustration of NASA’s Juno spacecraft in orbit around Jupiter.

NASA’s Juno spacecraft has been beaming photos of Jupiter back to Earth since 2016, but a new video shows what the view might look like from inside the probe as it flies past Jupiter’s roaring cyclones and giant storms.

The footage also offers a front-row look at Jupiter’s largest moon, Ganymede – an icy orb larger than Mercury.

Juno flew within 645 miles of Ganymede last week – the closest any spacecraft has gotten to the moon in more than two decades. (The last approach was by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft in 2000.) Less than a day later, Juno conducted its 34th flyby of Jupiter, snapping photos along the way.

Citizen scientist Gerald Eichstädt compiled images from both of those journeys into a time-lapse video that shows what it’s like to pass by the celestial bodies. The video lasts three minutes and 30 seconds, but in reality, it took Juno nearly 15 hours to travel the 735,000 miles between Ganymede and Jupiter, then about three additional hours to travel between Jupiter’s poles.

Take a look at the video below:

The beginning of the footage reveals Ganymede’s cratered surface, marked by dark patches that likely form as ice changes directly from solid to gas. If you look closely, you can see one of Ganymede’s largest and brightest craters, Tros, surrounded by white rays of ejected material.

When it captured those images, Juno was traveling at a speed of roughly 41,600 miles per hour. But as the spacecraft got closer to Jupiter, it picked up speed: The planet’s gravity accelerates Juno to nearly 130,000 miles per hour during its flybys.

The video shows Jupiter’s turbulent surface emerging from the dark abyss of space like a watercolor painting. White ovals indicate a set of giant storms in Jupiter’s southern hemisphere known as the “string of pearls.” (There are five of them in the video.) Flashes of white light represent lightning.

“The animation shows just how beautiful deep-space exploration can be,” Scott Bolton, Juno’s principal investigator at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, said in a statement.

He added: “Today, as we approach the exciting prospect of humans being able to visit space in orbit around Earth, this propels our imagination decades into the future, when humans will be visiting the alien worlds in our solar system.”

Juno has already solved some of Jupiter’s mysteries

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Jupiter.

Juno flies in an elliptical orbit around Jupiter, getting close to the planet once every 53 days. Its recent close pass to Ganymede, however, shortened that orbit to 43 days.

The spacecraft’s main goal is to gain insight into Jupiter’s origins and evolution by mapping its magnetic fields, studying its northern and southern lights (or auroras), and measuring elements of its atmosphere – including temperature, cloud movement, and water concentrations.

The spacecraft entered Jupiter’s orbit in July 2016. (Jupiter is roughly 390 million miles away from Earth.) Its mission was initially supposed to end this month, but NASA has extended Juno’s lifespan through 2025.

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Jupiter as seen by the Juno probe during its 10th flyby.

Juno’s previous flybys have yielded important discoveries, like the fact that most of Jupiter’s lightning is concentrated at its north pole. The spacecraft also found that storms tend to appear in symmetrical clusters at Jupiter’s poles, and that the planet’s powerful auroras produce ultraviolet light that’s invisible to human eyes.

Just this week, Juno’s measurements helped scientists figure out why these auroras form in the first place: Electrically charged atoms, or ions, “surf” electromagnetic waves in Jupiter’s magnetic field before crashing into the planet’s atmosphere.

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