What is the Europa Clipper spacecraft?

Europa Clipper is a Jupiter-orbiting spacecraft carrying science instruments to study Jupiter’s icy moon Europa. With a sophisticated suite of scientific instruments, Europa Clipper will be the most advanced spacecraft ever sent to investigate the habitability of another world.

Previous NASA missions have suggested that Jupiter’s moon Europa contains a salty ocean beneath a frozen crust. This global ocean may have more than twice as much water as all of Earth’s oceans combined. The mission will determine if Europa's ocean or overall environment are suitable to support some form of life.

Europa Clipper will be only the third spacecraft to orbit the largest planet in our solar system, and the second spacecraft to run on solar power at Jupiter’s distance from the Sun. It will also be the first NASA mission to exclusively study a moon other than Earth’s Moon.

Europa Clipper - artist's rendering

The spacecraft will launch in the mid-2020s and spend several years traveling to Jupiter. At launch, Europa Clipper will weigh approximately 13,000 pounds (6,000 kilograms), about 65% of which will be fuel. Its solar panels will span about 100 feet (30 meters) ­– wider than the length of a basketball court. The spacecraft will fly by Mars, then Earth, stealing orbital momentum from each. These gravity assists provide Europa Clipper with the velocity needed to reach Jupiter.

In Jupiter orbit, Europa Clipper will spend about one year altering its trajectory to prepare for its Europa flyby. The spacecraft will then spend three years soaring past Europa 45 times or so. After each flyby, the spacecraft will send its data back to Earth. Over the course of the mission, the spacecraft will scan almost the entire moon, at a variety of resolutions.

A metal box known as a radiation vault will shield Europa Clipper’s electronics from Jupiter’s harsh radiation. The vault’s walls are an alluminum alloy about 0.3 inches (9.2 millimeters) thick.

Europa Clipper’s science payload consists of ten instruments grouped as the following:

  • Cameras and spectrometers will create high-resolution images and composition maps of the moon's surface and thin atmosphere.
  • An ice-penetrating radar, a magnetometer, plasma sensors, and a gravity investigation will reveal the moon’s ocean and deep interior.
  • The spacecraft's thermal camera will pinpoint warmer ice and might reveal recent eruptions of water.
  • A dust analyzer and a mass spectrometer will study the chemistry of particles in space near the moon.

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