Jupiter’s icy moon takes a big step forward as engineers deliver a major component of the spacecraft.
Europa, Jupiter’s icy moon, almost certainly has a vast ocean beneath its icy shell. In fact, scientists believe this ocean contains more water than all of Earth’s oceans combined. The complex chemistry required for life as we know it to exist requires liquid water, making this ocean one of the key reasons astrobiologists want to study Europa.
NASA’s Europa Clipper will be equipped with science instruments needed to study Europa to see if it harbors conditions suitable for supporting life. It is expected to launch in 2024 and take several years to reach Jupiter. Once there, it will orbit the planet, during which it will soar past Europa some 45 times or so. During each flyby, it will scan the moon and then report the data back to Earth.
Now, the main body of NASA’s Europa Clipper spacecraft has just been delivered to the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California. Over the next two years there, engineers and technicians will finish assembling the craft by hand before testing it to make sure it can withstand the journey to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa.
The spacecraft body is the mission’s workhorse. Standing 10 feet (3 meters) tall and 5 feet (1.5 meters) wide, it’s an aluminum cylinder integrated with electronics, radios, thermal loop tubing, cabling, and the propulsion system. With its solar arrays and other deployable equipment stowed for launch, Europa Clipper will be as large as an SUV; when extended, the solar arrays make the craft the size of a basketball court. It is the largest NASA spacecraft ever developed for a planetary mission.
“It’s an exciting time for the whole project team and a huge milestone,” said Jordan Evans, the mission’s project manager at JPL. “This delivery brings us one step closer to launch and the Europa Clipper science investigation.”
This video captures the delivery of NASA’s Europa Clipper spacecraft core to the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory designed and built the spacecraft body in conjunction with JPL and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Scheduled to launch in October 2024, Europa Clipper will make nearly 50 flybys of Europa, which scientists are convinced harbors an inner ocean containing twice as much water as Earth’s oceans combined. And the ocean may currently have conditions conducive to life. The spacecraft’s nine science instruments will collect data on Europa’s atmosphere, surface and interior – information that scientists will use to assess the depth and salinity of the ocean, the thickness of the crust of ice and potential plumes that could discharge groundwater into space. .
“If there is life in Europe, it was almost certainly completely independent of the origin of life on earth…that would mean that the origin of life must be fairly easy throughout the galaxy and beyond. of the.” — Robert (Bob) Pappalardo, Project Scientist of the Europa Mission
These instruments have already started arriving at JPL, where the phase known as assembly, test and launch operations has been underway since March. The ultraviolet spectrograph, called Europa-UVS, arrived in March. Next is the spacecraft’s thermal emission imaging instrument, E-THEMIS, delivered by the scientists and engineers leading its development at Arizona State University. E-THEMIS is a sophisticated infrared camera designed to map the temperatures of Europa and help scientists find clues to the moon’s geological activity, including regions where liquid water may be near the surface.
By the end of 2022, most of the flight hardware and the rest of the scientific instruments should be finished.
The whole package
The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland designed the body of Europa Clipper in collaboration with JPL and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “The flight system designed, built and tested by APL – using a team of hundreds of engineers and technicians – was the physically largest system ever built by APL,” said Tom Magner of APL, project manager mission assistant.
Work on the core module is now continuing at JPL.
“What happened at JPL is essentially an assembly phase in itself. Under the direction of APL, this delivery includes the work of this institution and two NASA centers. Now the team will take the system to an even higher level of integration,” said Evans.
The main structure is actually two stacked aluminum cylinders studded with threaded holes for bolting onto the spacecraft’s cargo: the radio frequency module, radiation monitors, propulsion electronics, power converters and wiring . The radio frequency subsystem will power eight antennas, including a huge high-gain antenna that is 10 feet (3 meters) wide. The structure’s network of electrical wires and connectors, called a harness, alone weighs 150 pounds (68 kilograms); if extended, it would travel almost 2,100 feet (640 meters) – twice the perimeter of a football field.
The robust electronic vault, built to withstand the intense radiation of the Jupiter system, will be integrated into the main structure of the spacecraft along with the scientific instruments.
Inside the spacecraft’s main body are two tanks – one for fuel, one for oxidizer – and the tube that will transport their contents to a network of 24 engines, where they will combine to create a controlled chemical reaction that produces thrust.
“Our motors are dual-purpose,” said JPL’s Tim Larson, assistant project manager. “We use them for big maneuvers, including when we’re approaching Jupiter and need a big burn to capture in Jupiter’s orbit. But they’re also designed for smaller maneuvers to manage spacecraft attitude and fine-tune precision flybys of Europa and other solar system bodies en route.
These maneuvers large and small will come into play a lot during the six-year, 1.8 billion-mile (2.9 billion kilometer) journey to this ocean world, which Europa Clipper will begin to seriously investigate in 2031.
Learn more about the mission
Missions like Europa Clipper contribute to the field of astrobiology, interdisciplinary research into the variables and conditions of distant worlds that could harbor life as we know it. Although Europa Clipper is not a life-spotting mission, it will perform detailed reconnaissance of Europa and determine if the icy moon, with its subterranean ocean, has the capacity to support life. Understanding the habitability of Europa will help scientists better understand how life developed on Earth and the potential for finding life beyond our planet.
Managed by Caltech in Pasadena, Calif., JPL leads the development of the Europa Clipper mission in partnership with APL for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Planetary Missions Program Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama performs program management for the Europa Clipper mission.