NASA Begins Assembling Europa Clipper Spacecraft

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NASA has some big things planned for later this decade, including but not limited to sending a spacecraft to Jupiter’s moon Europa. Engineers and technicians are now beginning work on the Europa Clipper spacecraft that will make this epic journey. There’s still a long way to go, but the team only gets one chance to put it all together right. 

We live in a world where super-powerful, unbelievably sleek computing devices roll off the assembly line by the millions, but it takes years to build one spacecraft like Europa Clipper. According to NASA, the years-long build process is due to the fact that almost every element of the spacecraft is custom and hand-crafted by talented teams all over the US and Europe. The conditions around Jupiter are harsher than anything you’ll find near Earth, with scorching bands of radiation and very little sunlight, so off-the-shelf hardware just won’t do. 

Engineers inspect Europa Clipper’s ultraviolet spectrograph at JPL.

The Clipper will have nine science instruments, some of which have arrived at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California for integration with the spacecraft body. The main chassis (the propulsion module) is about 10 feet (3 meters) tall, but it will have a solar panel span of 72 feet (22 meters) because there’s so little sunlight in the outer solar system. The chassis was designed and built specifically for this mission by Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. This component will have electronics, radios, cabling, and the propulsion subsystem when it ships to JPL as soon as this spring. NASA also expects to have the spacecraft’s 10-foot high-gain antenna array soon. 

As each piece of the puzzle reaches JPL, the team will inspect, test, and then install it. Little by little, the spacecraft will take shape in the lead-up to a planned 2024 launch. That launch plan has already changed substantially. NASA originally planned to launch the Clipper on the Space Launch System (SLS), but that rocket has been delayed repeatedly and is not expected to manage its first lunar flyby until 2024. NASA announced last year that Europa Clipper would launch on the Falcon Heavy instead. This rarely-used SpaceX configuration consists of three Falcon 9 boosters linked together with increased support on the central module. This gives the rocket enough power to send large payloads like Europa Clipper to the outer solar system. 

An engineer inspects the radio panel of NASA’s Europa Clipper at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.

Europa has been a prime target for scientific research ever since we realized there is probably a liquid ocean under the moon’s icy shell. Jupiter’s intense gravity tugs on its moons as they orbit, and that generates heat that keeps the interior of Europa warm. The only signs on the surface are the lineae, which are dark streaks believed to be the result of water seeping through cracks. Scientists estimate Europa could have more liquid water than all of Earth’s oceans, and some have speculated it could even harbor life. Europa Clipper won’t be able to land, let alone dig into the subsurface ocean, but its up-close analysis is the first step in discovering what’s down there.

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