As Europa Clipper nears October launch date, scientists anticipate groundbreaking results

by Haygen Warren

Later this year, a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket will launch from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center with one of the most highly-anticipated and monumental planetary science missions of the decade — Europa Clipper. The mission will see the spacecraft travel to the smallest of Jupiter’s four Galilean moons, Europa, to investigate the characteristics of the moon, including proving the existence of a subsurface ocean and the possibility of habitable conditions being contained within that ocean.

Europa Clipper is currently undergoing final construction and testing at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California. Later this spring, testing will finish, and the spacecraft will be packaged up and shipped to Cape Canaveral, Florida, where final launch preparations will begin — ultimately culminating in the launch of the spacecraft in October. NSF recently had the opportunity to visit Europa Clipper in its clean room at JPL’s Spacecraft Assembly Facility and ask Cynthia Phillips, project staff scientist at JPL, about the mission and the current state of progress toward launch.

While construction of Europa Clipper may have started just a few years ago, planning for the mission and the design of the spacecraft started over a decade ago, in 2013, when the National Research Council recommended a mission to Europa, and funds were authorized for the formulation of mission plans and design. In 2017, the mission moved into the preliminary design phase, which continued into 2019. The spacecraft then moved into final design and fabrication, and in March 2022, the mission moved into the assembly, testing, and launch phase, and spacecraft construction officially began.

Since then, the spacecraft’s main body and instruments have been constructed and mated together at JPL, with the construction of the main body of the spacecraft being completed in June 2022. By Jan. 30, 2024, all nine of Europa Clipper’s instruments had been mated to the main body of the spacecraft.

Up-close image of Europa Clipper in its clean room at JPL. Note the instruments located around the body of the spacecraft. (Credit: Jack Beyer for NSF)

The cameras of Europa Clipper are the Europa Imaging System (EIS) and Europa Thermal Emission Imaging System (E-THEMIS). For spectroscopy, the spacecraft will use its Europa Ultraviolet Spectrograph (Europa-UVS) and Mapping Imaging Spectrometer for Europa (MISE) instruments. For measuring the plasma and magnetic field around Europa, the Europa Clipper Magnetometer (ECM) Plasma Instrument for Magnetic Sounding (PIMS) instruments will be used. To analyze the moon’s gravity, the Radar for Europa Assessment and Sounding: Ocean to Near-surface (REASON) instrument will be used. Lastly, for chemical analysis, Europa Clipper will use the Mass Spectrometer for Planetary Exploration/Europa (MASPEX) and Surface Dust Analyzer (SUDA) instruments.

Following the completion of construction, the spacecraft underwent several rounds of testing. In March, it was confirmed that all testing had been successful and that the spacecraft was on track for an on-time delivery to the Kennedy Space Center and, ultimately, launch. The mission’s launch window opens on Oct. 10.

Assuming a successful delivery to Florida and an on-time launch, Europa Clipper is set to arrive at Jupiter in 2030, with the spacecraft performing its orbital insertion burn on April 11, 2030. During the time between launch and its arrival at Jupiter, the spacecraft will perform flybys of Earth and Mars — maneuvers called “gravity assists” that help alter the spacecraft’s speed and trajectory to Jupiter in an effort to preserve spacecraft fuel. While in orbit around Jupiter, the spacecraft will perform as many as 45 to 50 flybys of Europa, even flying as close as 25 kilometers from the moon’s smooth, icy surface.

Following these first 45-50 flybys, and assuming the mission has progressed without a hitch, would a mission extension be possible? If so, what new imagery of the surface could be gathered?

“As of right now, we have about 50 flybys planned and mapped out. We’ll first have multiple flybys of the anti-Jupiter hemisphere (the side of Europa that faces away from Jupiter), and then we’ll have multiple flybys of the sub-Jupiter hemisphere. After that, if we’re so lucky as to have a spacecraft that’s still operating and be granted an extended mission, then yeah, I imagine that as we’re going through the images that we take of both the sub-Jupiter and the anti-Jupiter hemisphere during the prime mission, I imagine we’re going to find all sorts of just intriguing features that, you know, we have no idea even exist now, just because we haven’t seen the surface at this resolution. So, I hope we will be able to get more and more coverage of these features (with an extended mission),” Phillips said.

Europa Clipper’s MISE spectrometer attached to the body of the spacecraft. (Credit: Jack Beyer for NSF)

With this imagery and the several camera instruments onboard Europa Clipper, teams are hoping to confirm the existence of a potential subsurface ocean on Europa and, furthermore, the potential existence of life within this ocean. Life has long been theorized to exist on Europa if the moon indeed harbors a subsurface ocean, but observations from previous spacecraft like Juno and Galileo have only been able to provide evidence for its existence — not prove it. In fact, the possibility of this subsurface ocean and life is one of the main driving factors behind the creation of the mission and why it continues to receive support and funding from NASA and other agencies.

“The whole reason why we’re going to Jupiter, the reason why we’re building Europa Clipper, is that we know that Europa’s surface is covered with ice, but below that ice is this layer of liquid water. And we think, from observations taken by the Galileo spacecraft, that there’s actually more water there than all of Earth’s oceans combined. So we’re talking about a vast ocean of liquid water. It’s probably a little bit less salty than Earth’s oceans and we think that it’s been there over the age of the solar system — we’re talking four billion years. It’s because of this liquid water and the fact that it’s so stable and it’s been there for so long that Europa, in my opinion, is one of the best places for life to exist in our solar system beyond the Earth. And so that’s really the impetus of the whole Europa Clipper mission is to study the habitability of Europa,” Phillips explained.

“The mission is not a life detection mission per se. If we find giant whale breaching zones, okay, we found one. But more likely, the mission’s actual goals are to study the habitability of Europa. So that means, are there places below the surface of Europa that could support life, that could be habitable? And then it’ll take a future mission to go back and maybe actually land on the surface or maybe even drill down and get into that ocean to actually say, ‘Okay, is Europa actually inhabited?'”

So, what happens if Europa Clipper can prove the existence of this ocean and provide substantial evidence for the existence of life on the moon? What are the next steps, and would NASA and other space agencies investigate a future Europa lander?

“One of the things that I worked on in addition to Europa Clipper was a Europa lander mission concept, which, unfortunately, was not chosen to go forward in the latest decadal survey. One of the things that came out of that project, though, is this reconnaissance focus group, and as part of this focus group, we want to make sure that Europa Clipper collects the right kind of datasets so that a future mission that lands on Europa can use that data to land. So one of the things that we’ve done is we’ve looked at the trajectory that Europa Clipper will fly and the details of each of the close flybys, and there’s only a handful of those that actually meet our criteria for what we think a future mission will need to have to perform a landing. And those are things like resolution, but also viewing geometry and illumination angle, which is based on our experience with landing on places like Mars. So since we’ll be using terrain relative navigation and hazard avoidance and stuff like that, whatever dataset we get from Europa Clipper is the dataset that will be used to help pick a landing site for a future landing mission,” said Phillips

“Even if that landing mission is 20 or 30 years off in the future, you’re going to want to make sure that we have that dataset in the bag. That’s something we’ll make sure that Europa Clipper does, which is to do the best job it can in collecting a reconnaissance data set for future use.”

Europa Clipper will undoubtedly be one of the most anticipated and important missions of this decade and the decades to come. The mission will be hopefully the first of many future missions to the outer solar system that will attempt to confirm the habitability of several different moons around Jupiter and Saturn. Operating alongside Europa Clipper at Jupiter will be ESA’s Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer, more commonly known as JUICE, which plans to characterize not just Europa but the other icy moons of Jupiter, Ganymede and Callisto. Together, the two missions will provide scientists with more data and imagery than any other icy moons in our solar system and will allow for the creation of new missions and concepts to travel further into the solar system to search for life.

“After over a decade of hard work and problem-solving, we’re so proud to show the nearly complete Europa Clipper spacecraft to the world. As critical components came in from institutions across the globe, it’s been exciting to see parts become a greater whole. We can’t wait to get this spacecraft to the Jupiter system,” said Europa Clipper project manager Jordan Evans of JPL.

(Lead image: A scientist speaks to a member of the media in front of Europa Clipper at JPL’s Spacecraft Assembly Facility. Credit: Jack Beyer for NSF)

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