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NASA completes main cover for Europa Clipper spacecraft

Artist rendering of NASA’s Europa Clipper spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

JPL) in Southern California. Over the next two years there, engineers and technicians will finish assembling the craft by hand before testing it to make sure it can withstand the journey to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa.

NASA Europa Clipper Spacecraft Clean Room JPL

NASA’s Europa Clipper spacecraft is visible in a main clean room at JPL, as engineers and technicians inspect it just after delivery in early June 2022. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman

The spacecraft body is the mission’s workhorse. Standing 10 feet (3 meters) tall and 5 feet (1.5 meters) wide, it’s an aluminum cylinder integrated with electronics, radios, thermal loop tubing, cabling, and the propulsion system. With its solar arrays and other deployable equipment stowed for launch, Europa Clipper will be as large as an SUV; when extended, the solar arrays make the craft the size of a basketball court. It is the largest NASA spacecraft ever developed for a planetary mission.

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“It’s an exciting time for the whole project team and a huge milestone,” said Jordan Evans, the mission’s project manager at JPL. “This delivery brings us one step closer to launch and the Europa Clipper science investigation.”

This video shows the delivery of the core from NASA’s Europa Clipper spacecraft to the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. The spacecraft’s body was designed and built by the Johns Hopkins Laboratory of Applied Physics in collaboration with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Goddard Space Flight Center. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Scheduled to launch in October 2024, the Europa Clipper will operate nearly 50 flights aboard Europa, which scientists believe includes an inner ocean that contains twice as much water as Earth’s oceans combined. The ocean may currently have adequate conditions to support life. The spacecraft’s nine science instruments will collect data on Europa’s atmosphere, surface and interior — information that scientists will use to measure ocean depth and salinity, ice crust thickness and potential plumes that could spew groundwater into space.

“If life existed in Europe, it would almost certainly have been completely independent of the origin of life on Earth… This means that the origin of life throughout the galaxy and beyond must be very simple.” – Robert (Bob) Pappalardo, European Expedition Project Scientist

These instruments have already reached the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where the phase known as assembly, testing and launch operations has begun since March. ultraviolet spectrometer, called UVS Europe, in March. Next came the spacecraft’s thermal emission imaging, E-THEMIS, presented by the scientists and engineers leading its development at Arizona State University. E-THEMIS is an advanced infrared camera designed to map Europa’s temperatures and help scientists find evidence of the moon’s geological activity — including areas where liquid water may exist near the surface.

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By the end of 2022, most of the flight instruments and the rest of the scientific instruments are expected to be completed.

NASA's Europa Clipper Spacecraft Clean Room JPL

NASA’s Europa Clipper spacecraft has been disassembled in a main clean room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where engineers and technicians will examine it shortly after its delivery in early June 2022. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman

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The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, designed the Europa Clipper object in collaboration with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “The flight system that APL designed, built and tested with a team of hundreds of engineers and technicians was the largest physical system ever built by APL,” said Tom Magner, deputy project manager for the mission.

Work continues on the main unit now at JPL.

“What arrived at JPL is essentially an assembly phase itself. Led by APL, this delivery includes the work of that institution and two NASA centers. Now the team will take the system to a higher level of integration,” Evans said.

NASA's Europa Clipper spacecraft in shipping containers for cargo planes

The main body of NASA’s Europa Clipper spacecraft appears in its cargo hold just after arriving aboard a C-17 cargo plane at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County, California. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman

The main structure is actually two stacked aluminum cylinders with threaded holes for mounting to the payload of the spacecraft: the radio frequency module, radiation monitors, propulsion electronics, converters and wires. The RF subsystem will power eight antennas, including a huge 3-meter-high antenna. The structure’s network of cables and electrical connectors, known as connecting wires, weighs just 68 kilograms. If stretched, it would run nearly 2,100 feet (640 metres) – twice the size of a football field.

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The high-performance electronics vault, designed to withstand intense radiation from the Jupiter system, will be integrated into the spacecraft’s main hull along with scientific instruments.

Inside the spacecraft’s main hull are two tanks – one containing fuel and one for the oxidizer – and tubes that transfer their contents to a group of 24 thrusters, where they combine to create a controlled chemical reaction that produces thrust.

NASA's Europa Clipper spacecraft in a shipping container

The main body of NASA’s Europa Clipper spacecraft is shown in its cargo hold as it towed to the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Johns Hopkins APL/Ed Whitman

“Our engines serve two purposes,” said Tim Larson of Jet Propulsion Laboratory, assistant project manager. “We use it for large maneuvers, including when we get close to Jupiter and need a large depletion to capture it in Jupiter’s orbit. But it’s also designed for smaller maneuvers to control the position of the spacecraft and adjust the flight of Europa and other solar system objects along the way.”

These maneuvers, large and small, will play a major role during the six-year, 2.9 billion-kilometre voyage of this marine world that Europa Clipper will seriously study in 2031.

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Missions like Europa Clipper add to the range astrobiology, which is an interdisciplinary exploration of the variables and conditions of distant worlds that may harbor life as we know it. Although not a mission to detect life, the Europa Clipper will conduct a detailed survey of Europa and see if the icy moon, with its subterranean ocean, has the potential to support life. Understanding the habitability of Europe will help scientists better understand how life evolved on Earth and the possibility of finding life outside our planet.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, operated by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California, is leading 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 manages the Europa Clipper mission program.