Europa Clipper main body complete, teams continue to work for launch in 2024

In early June, the main body of NASA’s next Europa Clipper spacecraft completed construction and was shipped shortly after to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. The arrival of the Europa Clipper main body marks a major milestone in the construction of the spacecraft and shows that the spacecraft and its crews are on track for a 2024 launch.

“This is an exciting time for the entire project team and an important milestone. This delivery brings us one step closer to the Europa Clipper launch and scientific investigation,” said Jordan Evans, JPL’s Europa Clipper Project Manager.

Although the construction of the main body of the spacecraft has been completed, it does not mean that the construction of the spacecraft as a whole has been completed. Many mission-critical components still need to be assembled and installed on the spacecraft.

However, the arrival of the Europa Clipper main body at JPL now allows engineers and technicians to complete the construction of the spacecraft, which is expected within the next two years.

Europa Clipper’s main body is large, measuring three meters high and 1.5 meters wide, and is constructed from aluminum. Additionally, the main body is cylindrical in shape and is already integrated with numerous electronics, radios, heat loop tubes, wiring, and propulsion that are expected to be used during its nearly 10-year mission to Jupiter.

The main Europa Clipper module in a main clean room at JPL. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman)

Additionally, when Europa Clipper’s solar arrays and other deployable systems are fully expanded, the spacecraft will be as tall as a basketball court, making Europa Clipper the largest spacecraft ever developed by NASA for a mission. planetary scientist.

The main module itself consists of two aluminum cylinders stacked on top of each other. Each cylinder is studded with threaded holes that will be used to attach the instruments of Europa Clipper and other spacecraft systems.

Overall, Europa Clipper’s radio frequency module will power eight antennas that will be used to communicate with Earth and other spacecraft. One of these eight antennas is the mission’s large high-gain antenna. Measuring three meters wide, this high-gain antenna will be used to send data between Earth and Jupiter at rapid speeds.

Another system attached to the main body of Europa Clipper is its network of electrical connectors and wires. Called the harness, there are over 640 meters of wires and connectors, weighing 68 kilograms.

Europa Clipper’s robust electronics vault will carry some of the major electronics needed for the mission and is designed to withstand the immense radiation from Jupiter and its surrounding moons. It will be integrated into the main module alongside some of the mission’s science instruments at JPL.

Also inside the main module are two tanks that will hold the spacecraft’s fuel. One tank will contain the fuel and the other will contain the oxidizer. In addition, the piping used to transport fuel from the tanks to Europa Clipper’s 24 engines is stored inside the main module.

The spacecraft’s 24 engines will be used to perform critical maneuvers while traveling to and while on Jupiter.

“Our motors are dual-purpose,” said JPL’s Tim Larson, deputy 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.

The main body of Europa Clipper was designed and developed by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, in partnership with JPL and the Goddard Space Flight Center.

What awaits us

Now that the main body is at JPL, engineers will continue to work and prepare the main module for final testing and launch.

“What happened at JPL is basically an assembly phase in itself,” Evans said. “Under APL’s leadership, this delivery includes work from this institution and two NASA centers. Now the team [at JPL] will take the system to an even higher level of integration.

Europa Clipper is currently scheduled to launch in October 2024, pending construction and successful testing of the spacecraft. After launching atop a SpaceX Falcon Heavy, the spacecraft will spend five and a half years traveling to Jupiter, where it will then slot into orbit and begin its four-year science mission. During these four years, Europa Clipper will perform nearly 50 overflights of Europa.

During each of these flybys, the spacecraft will take high-resolution images of the moon’s icy surface and perform detailed surveys of Europa’s unique features.

Europa Clipper’s nine scientific instruments. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The evidence analyzed so far from other observations points to the presence of a large subterranean ocean over Europa, containing twice as much water as Earth’s oceans. Moreover, the conditions in this internal ocean may currently be suitable for life.

In fact, one of the main scientific objectives of Europa Clipper is to study and confirm the existence of this huge ocean.

To achieve this, Europa Clipper will carry nine scientific instruments to study Europa, including the Europa Thermal Emission Imaging System (E-THEMIS), the Mapping Imaging Spectrometer for Europa (MISE), the Europa Imaging System ( EIS), the Europa ultraviolet spectrograph (Europa-UVS), Radar for Europa Assessment and Sounding: Ocean to Near-surface (REASON), Interior Characterization of Europa using Magnetometry (ICEMAG), Plasma Instrument for Magnetic Sounding (PIMS), Mass Spectrometer for Planetary Exploration (MASPEX) and Surface Dust Analyzer (SUDA).

All of these instruments will study Europa’s surface, atmosphere and interior features, providing information that can be used to assess the depth and salinity of Europa’s ocean, the thickness of its icy surface crust and the potential plumes that could eject water from its ocean. in space, much like Enceladus does to Saturn.

Many of the Europa Clipper instruments have already been assembled, shipped and delivered to JPL and are awaiting integration into their respective locations on the spacecraft. This phase of development, known as build, test and launch operations, has been ongoing since March 2022.

By the end of 2022, much, if not all, of Europa Clipper’s hardware and flight instruments should be completed and shipped to JPL.

The main purpose of Europa Clipper – without searching for life in Europa – is to determine the habitability of the icy moon by making detailed observations of Europa’s surface. Understanding the habitability of Europa will help scientists better understand how the Earth evolved and how life developed on Earth.

(Main image: Europa Clipper flies over Europa. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Maria D. Ervin