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We Visited the Europa Clipper Spacecraft at JPL

Robin Seemangal
April 16, 20249:00 PM UTC (UTC +0)

The idea that humans (a vocal consensus of scientists and researchers throughout the global scientific community) are looking at an icy water world in the massive Jupiter system and wondering what may be swimming around in its saltwater ocean is nearing hard science fiction. The theory that Europa may harbor microbial life is enticing, provocative, and feels like an inquiry that once sat on the fringes of space exploration. Many scientists now agree it is the best place to look for life in the Solar System.

A mission to Europa has walked a long road from napkin to the clean room and soon, onto the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center, from where many of NASA’s pioneering interplanetary missions have departed. The endeavor to discover a mysterious world beneath Europa’s ice shell has lead to the creation of the largest interplanetary spacecraft ever built by the agency, Clipper. Its mission? To determine the habitability of Europa by scanning it with multiple flybys. 

In April 2020, Supercluster published a thorough longform by author and journalist David Brown on the lengthy and politically turbulent development of the Clipper mission as well as the delays associated with its previous launcher: the Space Launch System. We also published a detailed follow-up on Clipper’s scientific instruments by Nancy Atkinson just two months ago.

Now, Clipper is just six months away from launch and we were invited to visit the RV-sized probe at NASA’s legendary Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, the first time I suited up for a clean room spacecraft visit since OSIRIS-REx was launched on its mission to Bennu in 2016. At the time, I wrote a dispatch for Popular Science about potentially contaminating the spacecraft (and the eventual asteroid sample) as a way to talk about contamination. It seemed like a fun idea at the time until the spacecraft returned home and I thought about booking a one-way trip to a non-extradition country.

The clean room, and decontamination before entering, is serious business, especially at JPL, a NASA center at the heart of the agency’s storied efforts to explore the Solar System. After nearly 10 years covering space exploration, the first few being at Cape Canaveral, it would be my first visit to what always seemed like the coolest NASA center. And it is. For space fans to space industry professionals to silicon valley, a JPL visit is on the bucket list of many nerds. Including mine. The first time I tried to visit was the end of February 2020 when it seemed like shutdown was looming. I flew to California for four days in which I first joined the LA City Council meeting where a vote was being made to allow SpaceX to build Starship at the Port of Los Angeles. I then raced to visit SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, tour the Virgin Orbit factory in lead up to future projects, visit the James Webb Space Telescope at Northrop’s facility, and then make my way to JPL for a quick tour. After more bad COVID-19 news broke, I left town before I could get there, and flew right back to Cape Canaveral.

It was time to try again, despite the soul crushing traffic between LAX and Pasedena. Before our anticipated arrival on Thursday, April 11th, JPL’s media team sent out a list of precautions and guidelines necessary for a “clean” clean room visit. “These requirements are driven by a need to protect Europa Clipper’s sensitive instruments from dust, dirt, and debris so the spacecraft can perform its valuable science around Europa and to protect a moon that might currently have conditions suitable for life from any Earth microbes that might hitch a ride on our spacecraft,” said the release. Casual.

Planetary protection is taken very seriously by NASA and a scientist from that office was among our JPL guides. Precautions include a shower before your visit, refraining from perfume and cologne use, and going that day without glitter. There was a note about no cold or flu-like symptoms which concerned me because I do face allergies and sinus issues far more frequently in the spring, especially when I travel. I didn’t take a chance, popping a Claritin before heading over to JPL. I hardly ever worked with other press pools in the space industry so I was curious about the attendees and what the setup would be compared to the circus at Kennedy Space Center

I arrived to a beautiful and seemingly green campus, a welcome contrast to the flat and industrial area around NASA's Vehicle Assembly Building and Press Site at Kennedy Space Center. Next door to JPL was a horse ranch. At the welcome center, broadcast journalists and space journalists were gathering for the day’s Clipper events. When you first enter, you are directed to check in with a computer at the entrance and to take a seat. A few moments after finding that seat, you are immediately called up to the welcome desk to confirm identification and to get a guest badge printed. I was then directed to another group for a third round of checking in. I recognized Irene Klotz from Aviation Week, a longtime correspondent in the Kennedy press pool, we shared a hug. Later, my longtime friend and colleague Jack Beyer showed up to cover for NSF. A handful of local news folks gathered to talk about the death of O.J Simpson, which just happened.  

Now for the purposes of moving forward with this account and showing our readers a little bit behind the curtain of media operations during flagship missions, I won’t mention any specific names or people. Everyone was suited up and mostly unidentifiable anyway. After my third check-in, I was called over by security to make sure I was checked in, in which they made me email the JPL team to let them know I was checked-in, even though we were standing just a few feet from them. I sent the email and sat down and was told by JPL’s team that my predetermined time slot had been delayed by 20 minutes. This is all to remind me that no matter how cool the NASA center, it's still a janky government bureaucracy.

The group of journalists were then split up into multiple groups to rotate through the different events JPL had planned for us. The security guard came to check on me one more time and apologized for checking on me so many times. I asked if I could go to the large employee gift shop that was a little further into the campus. They said no and that the tiny welcome center shop would be open soon.

My first stop was the Von Karman Auditorium, named after JPL’s founder Theodore Von Karman. In the 1930s, Karman pioneered rocket propulsion and after a few failures and dangerous experiments “several graduate students led by Frank Malina, along with rocket enthusiasts from the Pasadena area, moved their work off campus,” according to NASA. One of those rocketeers was Jack Parsons, occultist and possible spy. The auditorium displays a few models on the floor that included Voyager and its Golden Record, a cross-section of Europa showing its terrain of ice and saltwater, as well as small model of Clipper. I walked around while I waited for my meeting with Project Scientist Robert Pappalardo, who David Brown referred to as the mission’s Jean-Luc Picard. I noticed JPL’s media team was running short on time so I offered to reduce me allotted 15 minutes with Pappalardo to 10, to which they were happy to do. 

Pappalardo is your quintessential brilliant mission scientist, battle worn from years of development but enthusiastic about the probe finally launching. He needed a few moments to refresh before our interview and wanted to move away from the facility’s bright lights. I opened by asking about the primary instruments on Clipper. “Those are ones that gather light, and the in-situ instruments that sense their environment and particles close up, he said. “REASON, the radar instrument, is amazing. The ice penetrating radar can shine radar wavelengths, essentially Radio waves, at Europa that penetrate through cold clean ice, bounce off liquid water, and back to the spacecraft to give us CAT scan of Europa's ice shell, Pappalardo explained.

“Where is the liquid water?”

Pappalardo said that if Europa cooperates, Clipper’s instrument could penetrate all the way down to the ocean to measure the thickness of the ice shell. The Europa Imaging System is a camera suite with high resolution and a wide angle imager. From 50 kilometers it gets images that are half-a-meter per pixel in resolution. A mass spectrometer will analyze gasses in Europa’s faint atmosphere and in the possible erupting water plumes. It will study the chemistry of the moon’s suspected subsurface ocean, and how the ocean and surface might exchange material. 

Clipper, in orbit around Jupiter, will make 49 flybys of Europa at closest-approach altitudes as low as 16 miles (25 kilometers) above the surface, over a different location during each flyby to scan about 80% of the moon.

Clipper will take half a decade to reach the Jupiter system, I rudely reminded Pappalardo. “It's a hard one,” he replied. “You hear me sighing a little bit. Yeah, it's not like we're killing time. It's a five and a half year cruise from launch to Jupiter orbit insertion, then about another 11 months before we make the first Europa flyby. So what are we doing? We're developing software that we need for the flybys.”

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At about 8 minutes into my promised 10-minute interview, a JPL rep interrupted the conversation because the bus taking me to the clean room was leaving early. I quickly asked Pappalardo on what a dream result looks like following Clipper’s investigation of Europa. “The dream result is to understand,” he replied. “Can we identify a sort of oasis at Europa a place where there's evidence of heat. Maybe there's evidence of a plume source of shallow liquid water of organics on the surface. And that could be a place that we might be able to send a Lander in the future and dig and Sample.” After an awkward conclusion to the interview, I then boarded the bus to the clean room, where I waited for a while. 

JPL provided a multi-piece suit that included shoes for your shoes, a head cover, and a one-piece coverall that zipped up to the neck. The last pieces we put on was a surgical mask and latex gloves that were taped to our “bunny” suits around the wrist. Before suiting up we stuck our sneakers in a cleaning machine and our helpers wiped down our phones and other handheld equipment.

Two at a time, suited up journalists and members of the JPL media team entered a small air shower room that connected the locker and clean rooms. High-velocity air jets aid in decontamination prior to entering the clean room.

Out of all the Hollywood depictions of space exploration throughout the years, the most accurate thing that translates on screen is people putting on bunny suits. It feels as fantastical in real life as it does on the big screen and it is one of those moments in a space career that underscores the marquee reason for working in the industry: seeing spacecraft. Before we got down to the floor, our group was ushered to a guest viewing area that displays the clean room from above through glass. The scene is unreal, even for LA. A dozen white suits in a clean room that has seen some legendary missions, each commemorated with a large insignia near the ceiling of the clean room, like championship banners at sports stadiums. Viking, Curiosity, Mariner, just to name a few. 

JPL's team said to have fun, which you don't hear much doing coverage at NASA centers. Telling the story of space exploration should be fun, I appreciated that. We were encouraged to take selfies and chat with the Clipper's team members. There was a mannequin dressed in a clean suit holding a sign that identified the spacecraft. The space industry loves mannequins, especially for testing crew vehicles. A member of NASA's media team shared that they worked on the agency's Psyche mission and had a tab opened with Supercluster's anxiety-driving countdown clock in the days leading up to launch. It caused much stress, apparently. I pulled out my phone to show that we were already tracking Clipper on our app but no countdown to stress everyone out yet. Another team member mentioned a window but we'll update the clock once NASA confirms. It will be a daytime launch.

The Europa Clipper spacecraft is larger than life and noticeably complex in design. You'd need a few days to spot each component in the whimsically chaotic array of cables, wires, switches, buttons, and fasteners that create a colorful grid around the spacecraft's hull. White suits scurried around the spacecraft, maintaining a 10ft perimeter around it. Surrounded by step ladders and cranes, the spacecraft's metal hull glistened under the bright lights of JPL's clean room, hallowed grounds. The discovery of life in Europa's ocean would be a transformative moment for the human race and the beginning of a new age of science. Clipper stands as the forerunner of this enterprise and the research it sends back could have paradigm shifting impact on not only the future of space exploration, but across countless fields of scientific research.

The vehicle's wings, or expanding solar arrays, are already at Kennedy Space Center. Each wing is approximately 46.5 feet (14.2 meters) long and approximately 13.5 feet (4.1 meters) high. With its arrays deployed, the spacecraft spans more than 100 feet (30.5 meters), or about the length of a basketball court. JPL said the agency will likely allow reporters at Kennedy Space Center an opportunity to visit the spacecraft once it arrives on the space coast and before its loaded onto SpaceX's Falcon Heavy. In which case, Jenny Hautmann will take photos with an actual camera.

The Supercluster team both in New York and Cape Canaveral are pretty excited for the launch of Europa Clipper atop Falcon Heavy and hope to see many space fans in Florida for the launch currently slated for October 10th. Jenny working to update launch viewing locations on the app while our designers conceptualize something cool to commemorate the mission. Erik Kuna and myself will be heading to Kennedy Space Center to also witness and capture the liftoff of the historic Europa Clipper probe.

Robin Seemangal
April 16, 20249:00 PM UTC (UTC +0)