Feature | August 15, 2022

NASA's Europa Clipper Spacecraft Kicks Assembly Into High Gear

The spacecraft will occupy the main production facility of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory as it prepares for its 2024 launch to Jupiter’s moon Europa.
In a large white multistory room, the main body of the Europa Clipper spacecraft rests upon a stand as it takes its position in the ultra-hygienic High Bay 1 in the JPL's Spacecraft Assembly Facility. The main body is composed of a shiny metallic cylinder with wiring and electronics attached to it. Two people in full white coveralls and masks crouch next to the main body. A person in full coveralls and a mask stands in the distance watching. On the right, two additional people in coveralls and masks watch the work being done on the mainbody of the spacecraft, with one pointing at the main body. In the distance, a the cleanrooms wall of fame is visible, with the identifiers of previous missions that have been assembled in the cleanroom.
The towering core of NASA’s Europa Clipper spacecraft is shown in the storied Spacecraft Assembly Facility at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The core of NASA’s Europa Clipper spacecraft has taken center stage in the Spacecraft Assembly Facility at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. Standing 10 feet (3 meters) high and 5 feet (1.5 meters) wide, the craft’s main body will for the next two years 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 – information that scientists will use 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.

This time-lapse video follows NASA’s Europa Clipper spacecraft as it moves into the storied High Bay 1 clean room from a smaller clean room at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. The multiday transport between rooms at the Lab’s Spacecraft Assembly Facility and the unwrapping and positioning of the spacecraft core required thorough planning and careful choreography. In this new location, engineers and technicians will complete assembly of the spacecraft in preparation for its launch to Jupiter’s moon Europa in October 2024. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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 Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), in Laurel, Maryland. The thermal-emission imaging instrument, called E-THEMIS, and the ultraviolet spectrograph, 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.

In the center of the image, the main body of the Europa Clipper spacecraft hangs from a yellow crane in a large, multistoried cleanroom with white walls and a white ceiling. Six engineers in full body coveralls and masks stand around the base of the main body as it hangs from the crane, with some working on the main body. In the distance, a viewing gallery is visible with four people watching the activities taking place.
Engineers and technicians use a crane to lift the core of NASA’s Europa Clipper spacecraft in the High Bay 1 clean room of JPL’s Spacecraft Assembly Facility. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Fabricated at JPL, this key piece of hardware 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, protecting 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.

Two major pieces of flight hardware for the Europa Clipper spacecraft are attached to a flotron machine in a cleanroom. The hardware is visible in the rear middle of the images. The flotron is a large structure that allows the hardware to be rotated and moved for assembly purposes. The flight hardware consists of a large aluminum vault, which is shaped like a box. Within the vault, sensitive electronics will live, protecting them from radiation in Jupiter's environment. Attached the vault is a metal deck, called the nadir deck. Attached to this metal deck are multiple instrument sensors and cameras, which will allow the spacecraft to conduct science. Four engineers in full body coveralls and masks are seen working on flotron. An American flag is visible in the top left of the image.
Europa Clipper’s vault, with the nadir deck attached, is prepared for a move to the High Bay 1 clean room of the Spacecraft Assembly Facility at JPL. The vault will protect the spacecraft’s electronics, while the nadir deck will provide a stable platform for science instruments. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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 2,100 feet (640 meters) – 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’ll 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 1.8 billion miles (2.9 billion kilometers), it will achieve orbit around Jupiter in 2030.

More About the Mission

Missions such as Europa Clipper contribute to the field of astrobiology, the interdisciplinary research field that studies the conditions of distant worlds that could harbor life as we know it. While Europa Clipper is not a life-detection mission, it will conduct a detailed exploration of Europa and investigate whether the icy moon, with its subsurface ocean, has the capability to support life. Understanding Europa’s habitability will help scientists better understand how life developed on Earth and the potential for finding life beyond our planet.

Managed by Caltech in Pasadena, California, JPL leads the development of the Europa Clipper mission in partnership with APL for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. APL designed the main spacecraft body in collaboration with JPL and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. The Planetary Missions Program Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, executes program management of the Europa Clipper mission.

News Media Contacts

Gretchen McCartney
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Karen Fox / Alana Johnson
NASA Headquarters, Washington
301-286-6284 / 202-358-1501
karen.c.fox@nasa.gov / alana.r.johnson@nasa.gov

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