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 the core of NASA’s Europa Clipper spacecraft to the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. The spacecraft’s body was designed and built by the Johns Hopkins Laboratory of Applied Physics in conjunction with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Goddard Space Flight Center. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The Europa Clipper, set to launch in October 2024, will make nearly 50 flights aboard Europa, which scientists say is home to an inner ocean containing twice as much water as Earth’s oceans combined. The ocean may currently have sufficient conditions to support life. The spacecraft’s nine science instruments will collect data on Europe’s atmosphere, surface and interior – information that scientists will use to measure ocean depth and salinity, ice crust thickness and potential plumes carrying groundwater to spit into space.
“If there was life in Europe, it would almost certainly have been completely independent of the origin of life on Earth… This means that the origin of life must have been very easy throughout the galaxy and beyond.” † Robert (Bob) Pappalardo, European Expedition Project Scientist
These devices have already begun to arrive at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where the phase known as assembly, testing and launch activities has begun since March. Ultraviolet spectrometer, called Europe UVS, arrived in March. Next came the spacecraft’s thermal emission imaging, E-THEMIS, presented by the scientists and engineers leading its development at Arizona State University. E-THEMIS is an advanced infrared camera designed to map temperatures in Europe and help scientists find clues about the moon’s geological activity — including areas where liquid water may be close to the surface.
By the end of 2022, most of the flight instruments and the rest of the scientific instruments are expected to be completed.
The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, designed the Europa Clipper object in collaboration with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “The flight system that APL designed, built and tested — with the help of a team of hundreds of engineers and technicians — was the largest physical system APL had ever built,” said Tom Magner of APL, the mission’s assistant project manager.
Work continues on the main unit now at JPL.
“What arrived at JPL is basically an assembly phase itself. Led by APL, this delivery includes the work of that institution and two NASA centers. Now the team will take the system to a higher level of integration,” says Evans. He said.
The main structure is actually two aluminum cylinders studded with threaded holes for mounting on the spacecraft’s payload: the radio frequency module, radiation monitors, propulsion electronics, transformers and wires. The RF subsystem will power eight antennas, including a huge 10-foot (3-meter) antenna. The structure’s network of electrical wires and connectors, called a harness, weighs 68 pounds; If stretched, it would be about 640 meters long – twice the circumference of a football field.
The heavy-duty electronic vault, designed to withstand intense radiation from the Jupiter system, will be integrated into the spacecraft’s main hull along with scientific instruments.
In the spacecraft’s main hull are two tanks—one containing the fuel and one for the oxidizing agent—and tubes that transfer their contents to a chain of 24 engines, where they will combine to create a controlled chemical reaction that produces thrust.
“Our engines serve two purposes,” said Tim Larson of Jet Propulsion Laboratory, deputy project manager. “We use it for large maneuvers, including when we get close to Jupiter and need a large depletion to fall into Jupiter’s orbit. But it’s also designed for smaller maneuvers to position the spacecraft and fly over Europa and other solar system objects along the way.”
These maneuvers, large and small, will play a large role in the six-year 2.9 billion kilometer journey into this ocean world, which Europa Clipper will begin to explore in earnest in 2031.
More about the mission
Missions like Europa Clipper contribute in terms of astrobiology, interdisciplinary research into the variables and conditions of distant worlds that could harbor life as we know it. While the Europa Clipper is not a mission to detect life, it will conduct a detailed survey of Europa and verify that the icy moon, with its subterranean ocean, has the potential to support life. Understanding the habitability of Europe will help scientists better understand how life evolved on Earth and the possibility of finding life outside our planet.
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, operated by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California, is leading the development of the Europa Clipper mission in collaboration 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 manages the Europa Clipper mission program.
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