Particle physics laboratory

Jet Propulsion Laboratory begins assembly of Europa Clipper spacecraft, bound for Jupiter’s icy moon – Pasadena Now

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

Science instruments and other hardware from NASA’s Clipper spacecraft are gathered for assembly in clean rooms at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for the final phase of the mission before a launch to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa in 2024.

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

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.

“We are entering the phase where we see the pieces coming together into a system of flight,” said Jan Chodas, JPL’s Europa Clipper project manager. “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.

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.

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.

“I don’t know how I’m going to feel watching this all come together. I suspect it will be somewhat overwhelming,” said Europa Clipper project scientist Robert Pappalardo of JPL. “It’s happening – it’s getting real. It becomes tangible. »

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

“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,” said JPL Deputy Project Manager Jordan Evans. “Everyone’s eyes are on the integrated system that’s coming together, which is exciting.”

Learn more about the 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.

More information about Europa can be found here: europa.nasa.gov

Get our daily Pasadena newspaper delivered to your inbox. Free.

Get all the latest Pasadena news, 10+ new stories a day, 7 days a week at 7 a.m.