July 23 (UPI) -- NASA on Friday awarded SpaceX the $178 million contract to launch the agency's Europa Clipper mission to study Jupiter's fourth-largest moon.
The mission is expected to depart October 2024 on the private aerospace company's Falcon Heavy rocket from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
"Europa Clipper will conduct a detailed survey of Europa and use a sophisticated suite of science instruments to investigate whether the icy moon has conditions suitable for life," NASA said.
"Key mission objectives are to produce high-resolution images of Europa's surface, determine its composition, look for signs of recent or ongoing geological activity, measure the thickness of the moon's icy shell, search for subsurface lakes, and determine the depth and salinity of Europa's ocean."
Europa is the smallest of the four moons of Jupiter that 17th century Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei discovered. NASA's Galileo spacecraft examined the moon in the late 1990s, taking photos that reveal a relatively smooth surface marked by ridges, bands and small, rounded domes.
"We've only seen a very small part of Europa's surface at this resolution. Europa Clipper will increase that immensely," said planetary geologist Cynthia Phillips of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of Caltech in Pasadena.