The Europa Clipper is Coming Together, Launching in 2024

Who is excited to send a spacecraft to Europa? Every person I’ve talked to who is even remotely interested in planetary exploration is incredibly enthusiastic about the upcoming Europa Clipper mission to explore Jupiter’s icy moon. With strong evidence of a subsurface liquid ocean, Europa is considered by many to be the most likely place in our Solar System – besides Earth — which might harbor life. The many mysteries about this moon make it a compelling place to explore.

The mission is scheduled to launch in 2024, and the spacecraft will orbit Jupiter and conduct multiple close flybys of Europa to gather data on the moon’s atmosphere, surface, and interior. It’s suite of nine science instruments will investigate everything from the depth and salinity of the ocean to the thickness of the ice crust to the characteristics of potential plumes that may be venting subsurface water into space.

The team is now sharing some details and images about how the spacecraft is coming together.

“It’s happening – it’s becoming real. It’s becoming tangible,” said JPL’s Robert Pappalardo, the Europa Clipper project scientist.

Since the mission passed reviews last year, the assembly of the spacecraft is taking place in clean rooms at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, with components and science instruments arriving from across the US and Europe. Before year’s end, most of the flight hardware is expected to be complete.

“We’re moving into the phase where we see the pieces all come together as a flight system,” said Europa Clipper Project Manager Jan Chodas of JPL. “It will be very exciting to see the hardware, the flight software, and the instruments get integrated and tested. To me, it’s the next level of discovery. We’ll learn how the system we designed will actually perform.”

When fully assembled, Europa Clipper will be as large as an SUV with solar arrays long enough to span a basketball court. The propulsion module, the main body of the spacecraft is 3 meters (10 ft) tall, and it’s equally large high-gain antenna is the same size.

Engineers inspect Europa Clipper’s ultraviolet spectrograph (called Europa-UVS) in a cleanroom at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, following the delivery of the instrument from Southwest Research Institute (SwRI). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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

The Europa Clipper Solar Array Mechanical Simulator (SAMS) is shown installed on the spacecraft’s propulsion module as a part of a weeklong effort at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, to check that the solar array struts were correctly fabricated and installed onto the spacecraft structure. SAMS is a mass and geometry simulator for a single solar array wing that will be used as a part of spacecraft structural testing. Credit: Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman

As each component and instrument is integrated with the spacecraft it tested to make sure the instruments can communicate with the flight computer, spacecraft software, and the power subsystem.

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

Lead image caption: Clockwise from left: the propulsion module for NASA’s Europa Clipper, the ultraviolet spectrograph (called Europa-UVS), the high-gain antenna, and an illustration of the spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech / Johns Hopkins APL

Further reading: NASA, Europa Clipper website