Poster showing spacecraft moving above surface of Jupiter's moon Europa.

EarthSky | Europa Clipper assignment at JPL! Ready for installation

Poster showing spacecraft moving above the surface of Jupiter's moon Europa.
NASA poster for the Europe Clipper mission. Scientists believe that beneath the moon’s icy shell there is a global saltwater ocean with twice the volume of the Earth’s oceans combined. NASA’s Europe Clipper mission will launch in 2024 and will answer specific questions about Europe’s oceans, ice shells, composition and geology. Poster via NASA.

NASA has just taken another big step in its planned mission to Jupiter’s fascinating moon Europa. The mission is called Europa Clipper. Why mower? Because Europe is believed to be a sea moon, with a floating sea – twice the volume of all the earth’s oceans together – under its icy crust. Is there life in Europe’s seas? Perhaps. Europa Clipper is designed to search for it. NASA said this month that the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland has now delivered the bulk of the Europa Clipper to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. Over the next two years, the rest of the spacecraft will be mounted at JPL, before launching in October 2024 and arriving at Jupiter 2030.

Europa Clipper: Spacecraft in a large laboratory room with several technologies standing around it.
Show larger. | In this photo, we see the Europa Clipper spacecraft inside the clean room of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). The majority of the spacecraft is now on JPL, and engineers combine it with the rest of the spacecraft’s components. Image via NASA / JPL-Caltech/ Johns Hopkins APL / Ed Whitman.

Europa Clipper: Small but powerful

The spacecraft’s main body is not huge when the spacecraft is running, 3 meters high and 1.5 meters wide. But later, as its solar panels unfold, the overall spacecraft will be as big as a basketball court. In fact, it is now the largest spacecraft NASA has ever developed for a planetary mission.

In the same way, this main body houses a powerful and complex robotic spacecraft, designed to study Europe in unmatched detail. The body consists of aluminum filled with electronics, radios, heating coils, cables and the propulsion system.

The main body consists of two stacked aluminum cylinders dotted with threaded holes. Engineers use these holes to screw the body together with the cargo of the spacecraft. This includes the radio frequency module, radiation monitors, propulsion electronics, power converters and wires. The Europa Clipper has eight antennas, including a high gain antenna measuring 10 feet (3 meters) wide. Selenium – the large collection of electrical wires – is also a large part of the spacecraft. Selenium weighs 150 pounds (68 kg). If you stretched it, it would run almost 2,100 feet (640 meters); it is twice the circumference of a football pitch.

The electronics are powerful, designed to survive the intense radiation around Jupiter.

The body also contains two tanks, one for fuel and one for oxidizing agents. They help to provide traction for the spacecraft’s 24 engines. Tim Larsonassistant project manager at JPL, sa:

Our engines have dual purposes. We use them for large maneuvers, including when we approach Jupiter and need a major burn to get caught in Jupiter’s orbit. But they are also designed for smaller maneuvers to handle the attitude of the spacecraft and to fine-tune the precision flights of Europe and other solar system bodies along the way.

An exciting time for Europa Clipper

Jordan EvansEuropa Clipper project manager at JPL, stated:

It’s an exciting time for the entire project team and a huge milestone. This delivery takes us one step closer to the launch and Europa Clipper’s scientific study.

Assembly phase

APL designed the Europa Clipper’s main body, together with JPL and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. According to Tom MagnerAssistant Project Manager:

The flight system designed, built and tested by APL – with the help of a team of hundreds of engineers and technicians – was the largest physical system ever built by APL.

Evans Added:

What came to JPL essentially represents an assembly phase in itself. Under APL’s leadership, this delivery includes work by that department and two NASA centers. Now the team will take the system to an even higher level of integration.

Large round container on a long truck platform, with the NASA logo on top, at night.
Here we see the main part of Europa Clipper during delivery in its shipping container to JPL. Image via NASA / JPL-Caltech/ Johns Hopkins APL / Ed Whitman.

9 scientific instruments

Europa Clipper has no less than nine scientific instruments on board. They are now also arriving at JPL, where engineers will integrate them into the spacecraft itself. The first of these, the ultraviolet spectrograph (European UVS), arrived at JPL in March. Then came the thermal emission instrument (E-THEME).

Europa-UVS looks at Europe’s surface in ultraviolet wave-length. These data tell researchers what types of materials are found on Europe’s surface. The instrument mainly identifies relatively simple molecules, such as hydrogen (H2), acid (O2), hydroxide (OH) and carbon dioxide (CO2). It can also detect simple hydrocarbons such as methane (CH4) and ethane (C2hrs6). They are building blocks for complex molecules like amino acidswhich are the building blocks to proteins and the raw materials of life as we know it.

Europa-UVS will also study Europe’s very thin atmosphere and Northern Lights, and search for the highly coveted water vapor plumes.

Planet-like body covered with many thin curved lines with light spots at the bottom, on a mottled blue background.
As part of its search for evidence of habitability, Europa Clipper will be looking for the moon’s elusive water vapor plumes. This is a composite image from Hubble Space Telescope, which shows possible water plumes in Europe at 7 o’clock. Image via NASA/ ESA / W. Sparks (STScI) / USGS Astrogeology Science Center.

E-THEMIS maps Europe’s temperatures in infrared and studies the moon’s geology. It will also look for some of the underground lakes – between the outer crust and the sea below – that may be present. A study last April found that odd ridges on the surface of Europe can be formed above these lakes.

A new view of Europe

The Europa Clipper mission is exciting, to explore this moon up close for the first time since Galileo mission which revolved around Jupiter 1995-2003. It will carry out almost 50 near misses of the moon during its mission. Europa Clipper promises to revolutionize our understanding of this fascinating world and find out if it really can be a home for strangers.

Summary: NASA’s Europe Clipper mission has just completed another major step towards launch, the delivery of the spacecraft’s main body to the JPL. Europa Clipper is scheduled to be launched in October 2024 and will study Jupiter’s sea moon Europa for proof of habitability.


Read more about the Europa Clipper mission

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