The Europa Clipper spacecraft in the assembly phase


Clockwise from left: NASA’s Europa Clipper propulsion module is the main body of the spacecraft, which is nearing completion. Next comes the ultraviolet spectrograph, called Europa-UVS. Europa-UVS will search above the surface for signs of potential plumes that could discharge groundwater into space. Next we see the huge high-gain antenna, which is almost 10 feet (3 meters) wide. And finally, an artist’s concept of Europa Clipper close to Jupiter and its satellite Europa. Image via NASA/JPL.

NASA/JPL-Caltech originally published this article on March 3, 2022.

Assembling the Europa Clipper

When fully assembled, NASA’s Europa Clipper will be as big as an SUV with solar panels long enough to cover a basketball court: to better power the spacecraft during its journey to Jupiter’s icy moon, Europe. And just about every detail of the spacecraft will have been handcrafted.

The assembly effort is already underway in the cleanrooms of the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. Today, engineering components and scientific instruments are beginning to flow in from across the country and from Europe. Before the end of the year, most of the flight hardware, including a suite of nine scientific instruments, should be completed.

The spacecraft’s main body is a giant 10-foot-tall (3-meter-tall) propulsion module, designed and built by Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, with assistance from Goddard Space NASA Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland and JPL. The module, complete with electronics, radios, wiring, and propulsion subsystem, will ship to JPL this spring. Europa Clipper’s 10-foot-wide (3-meter-wide) high-gain antenna will also arrive at the lab soon.

Europa Clipper project manager Jan Chodas of JPL said:

We enter the phase where we see the pieces coming together into a system of flight. It will be very exciting to see the hardware, flight software and instruments integrated and tested. For me, this is the next level of discovery. We will learn how the system we designed will actually work.

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Explore an aquatic world

Europa, which scientists are confident harbors an inner ocean with twice the amount of water in Earth’s oceans combined, may currently have conditions suitable for life. Europa Clipper will orbit Jupiter and make several close flybys of Europa to collect data on the moon’s atmosphere, surface and interior. Its sophisticated payload will study everything from the depth and salinity of the ocean, to the thickness of the ice crust, to the characteristics of potential plumes that could discharge groundwater into space.

The first scientific instrument to be completed was delivered to JPL last week by a team from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas. The ultraviolet spectrograph, called Europa-UVS, will search above Europa’s surface for signs of plumes. The instrument collects ultraviolet light and then separates the wavelengths of that light to help determine the composition of the moon’s surface and gases in the atmosphere.

As each instrument arrives at JPL, it will be integrated into the spacecraft and retested. Engineers must ensure that instruments can communicate with the flight computer, spacecraft software, and power subsystem.

Once all the components have been integrated to form the large flight system, Europa Clipper will move to JPL’s massive thermal vacuum chamber for testing that simulates the harsh environment of deep space. There will also be intense vibration testing to ensure that Europa Clipper can withstand the jostling of the launch. Then head to Cape Canaveral, Florida, for launch in October 2024.

A woman covered in white protective clothing handles equipment.
An engineer inspects NASA’s Europa Clipper radio frequency (RF) panel in a clean room at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. Image via NASA/JPL/Johns Hopkins APL.

See it all coming together

For those responsible for this mission, seeing the engineering components partner with the instrument fleet will be particularly moving, knowing how hard their teams have worked during the coronavirus pandemic.

JPL’s Robert Pappalardo, Europa Clipper project scientist, said:

I don’t know how I’m going to feel, watching this all fall into place. I suspect it will be a bit overwhelming. It happens – it becomes real. It becomes tangible.

At the same time, the level of difficulty increases several notches as the layers of the project merge.

JPL’s Jordan Evans, the deputy project manager, said:

All of the parallel paths of hardware and software development will begin to come together in a way that is very visible to the team. Everyone’s eyes are on the integrated system taking shape, which is exciting.

Learn more about the Europa Clipper 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.

Learn more about Europe.

Conclusion: The scientific instruments and other hardware of the Europa Clipper spacecraft will be brought together in the final phase of the mission before a launch on Jupiter’s icy moon Europa in 2024.


Read more: More evidence that Europa’s ocean is habitable


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