NASA’s Europa Clipper Spacecraft Kicks Assembly into High Gear

Europa Clipper spacecraft

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

The core of NASA’s Europa Clipper spacecraft has taken center stage in the Spacecraft Assembly Facility at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California. Standing 3 meters (10 feet) high and 1.5 meters (5 feet) wide, for the next two years the spacecraft’s main body will be the focus of attention in the facility’s ultra-hygienic High Bay 1 as engineers and technicians assemble the spacecraft for its launch to Jupiter’s moon Europa in October 2024.

Scientists believe the ice-enveloped moon harbors a vast internal ocean that may have conditions suitable for supporting life. During nearly 50 flybys of Europa, the spacecraft’s suite of science instruments will gather data on the moon’s atmosphere, surface, and interior. Scientists will use this information to gauge the depth and salinity of the ocean, the thickness of the ice crust, and potential plumes that may be venting subsurface water into space.

Several of Europa Clipper’s science instruments already have been completed and will be installed on the spacecraft at JPL. Most recently, the plasma-detection instrument, called the Plasma Instrument for Magnetic Sounding, and the Europa Imaging System wide-angle camera arrived from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. The thermal-emission imaging instrument, called E-THEMIS, and the ultraviolet spectrograph, called Europa-UVS, have already been installed on the spacecraft’s nadir deck which will support many of the instrument sensors by stabilizing them to ensure they are oriented correctly.

Fabricated at JPL, the core of the Europa Clipper will soon move into the Spacecraft Assembly Facility’s High Bay 1, the same clean room where historic missions such as Galileo, Cassini, and all of NASA’s Mars rovers were built.

Also moving soon to High Bay 1 will be the aluminum electronics vault, which will be bolted to the main body of the spacecraft. This vault will protect the electronics inside from Jupiter’s intense radiation. The electronics enable Europa Clipper’s computer to communicate with the spacecraft’s antennae, science instruments, and the subsystems that will keep them alive.

Bright copper cabling snaking around the orbiter’s aluminum core contains thousands of wires and connectors handcrafted at APL. If placed end to end, the cabling would stretch almost 640 meters (2100 feet), long enough to wrap around a U.S. football field twice.

Inside the core are Europa Clipper’s two propulsion tanks. The fuel and oxidizer they will hold will flow to an array of 24 engines where they will create a controlled chemical reaction to produce thrust in deep space.

By the end of 2022, most of the flight hardware and the remainder of the science instruments are expected to be complete. Then, the next steps will be a wide variety of tests as the spacecraft moves toward its 2024 launch period. After traveling for nearly six years and over 2.9 billion kilometers (1.8 billion miles), it will achieve orbit around Jupiter in 2030.