Europa Clipper is an orbiter that will launch to the Jupiter system.
The spacecraft is NASA’s outer planets flagship mission — the agency’s Starship Enterprise — and it will study the habitability of Europa, an ice-covered ocean moon. If the clouds of cruel Venus have the potential for life, the saltwater seas of Europa promise to be a veritable aquatic Eden. To determine whether creatures can exist there, Europa Clipper will orbit Jupiter multiple times, scanning Europa in slices at each encounter, building over time a global map of the frozen moon.
This mission is decades in the making, and here, in this room, some small part of it is real. A Europa expedition is no longer “if” or “how,” but “how soon?” And what it promises, to quote Philip K. Dick, is not “what if,” but “my God, what if?”
Up close in the cleanroom, the wires are zip-tied in bundles, long and winding plexes every color of the rainbow. The tendrils are attached to a horizontal silver cylinder about the size of a telephone booth. The way they are wrapped, they look like a subway map. Brackets and arms and bolts and ribbing jut from the cylinder — a “harness model,” it is called — and the whole thing is mounted on a rack system that allows the unit to be angled and rotated for engineers to install wires wherever necessary.
The wires — called collectively the “wiring harness” — will one day connect all of Europa Clipper’s computers and scientific instrumentation and various spacecraft subsystems, e pluribus unum.
The wiring is going to space, but the harness model is only a placeholder. Next year, these wires will be removed from the cylinder and installed on the actual spacecraft being built across the country, at Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. In ten years, electrons will surge through them as Europa Clipper circles Jupiter, enduring all the while the merciless radiation of the Jovian system.
The spacecraft’s instruments will reveal beneath Europa’s ice shell a liquid ocean with three times the amount of saltwater found here on Earth.
If there is complex life anywhere else in the solar system, it is there, in that water. Which means JPL, APL, and a handful of NASA centers across the country are building a spacecraft that will address questions that directly affect philosophy, religion, and humankind’s place in the universe.
What NASA finds at Europa might literally change everything, and Europa Clipper is central to this effort. (Courtesy of David Brown for Supercluster)
Europa Clipper is NASA’s largest planetary mission spacecraft.
With its massive solar arrays and radar antennas, Europa Clipper will be the largest spacecraft NASA has ever developed for a planetary mission. The spacecraft needs large solar arrays to collect enough light for its power needs as it operates in the Jupiter system, which is more than five times as far from the Sun as Earth. The spacecraft will be about 16 feet (5 meters) in height. With its arrays deployed, the spacecraft spans more than 100 feet (30.5 meters) and has a dry mass (no propellant in the tanks) of 7,145 pounds (3,241 kg).
Because Europa is bathed in radiation trapped in Jupiter's magnetic field, Europa Clipper's payload and other electronics will be enclosed in a thick-walled vault. This strategy of armoring up to go to Jupiter with a radiation vault was developed and successfully used for the first time by NASA’s Juno spacecraft. (Courtesy of NASA)
The vault walls – made of titanium and aluminum – will act as a radiation shield against most of the high-energy atomic particles, dramatically slowing down degradation of the spacecraft's electronics.
Image Credit: NASA
Falcon Heavy is designed and manufactured by SpaceX in Hawthorne, California. It is derived from the Falcon 9 vehicle and consists of a strengthened Falcon 9 first stage as a central core with two additional first stages as strap-on boosters.
Total launches: 7
Total landings: 13
Total reflights: 10
Height: 70m / 229.6ft
Width: 12.2m / 39.9ft
Mass: 1,420,788kg / 3,125,735lb
Payload to LEO: 63,800 kg / 140,660 lb
Payload to GEO: 26,700 kg / 58,860 lb
Payload to Mars: 16,800 kg / 37,040 lb
SpaceX conducted Falcon Heavy's first launch on February 6th, 2018, at 3:45 PM EST. The rocket carried a Tesla Roadster belonging to SpaceX founder Elon Musk, with a dummy dubbed "Starman" in the driver's seat.
The second Falcon Heavy launch occurred on April 11th, 2019. This launch successfully launched the Arabsat-6A satellite and all three booster rockets successfully returned to Earth except but the center core subsequently fell over and was lost during transport due to heavy seas.
The third Falcon Heavy launch successfully occurred on June 25th, 2019. This mission successfully launched multiple payloads including USAF STP-2, a space memorial for Celestis, and Lightsail-2. The mission also supported the U.S. Air Force National Security Space Launch certification process for the Falcon Heavy. The side boosters were successfully recovered but the center core failed to land and was destroyed on impact with the Atlantic Ocean.
The fourth Falcon Heavy mission, USSF-44 for the U.S. Space Force, successfully launched on November 1st, 2022 from Kennedy Space Center.
Photo by SpaceX
NASA's historic Kennedy Space Center is located on Cape Canaveral, Florida, and has hosted decades of historic space missions since the early days of the Apollo program.
Today, Kennedy Space Center is a multi-user spaceport and hosts private companies like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, SpaceX, and others.
SpaceX leases Launch Complex 39A at NASA's flagship facility and uses the pad to launch its Falcon Heavy and Falcon 9 rockets. The pad is also used to launch missions for the Commercial Crew Program for which SpaceX launches astronauts to the Space Station for NASA aboard their Crew Dragon capsule.
Launch Complex 39A was previously used by NASA to launch the Apollo 11 mission to land the first humans on the moon and Space Shuttle missions to assemble the International Space Station and upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope.
Landing Zone 1 (LZ-1) is an 86-meter-wide circular landing pad at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station and is one of two SpaceX booster landing pads at the Florida spaceport.
Built on former Launch Complex 13, LZ-1 was the site of SpaceX's first successful landing and recovery of a Falcon 9 on the ORBCOMM-2 mission in December 2015. Since then, it has hosted 16 landings.
The landing pad, as well as its twin, LZ-2 located a few dozen meters away, can support both single landings of a Falcon 9 or simultaneous landings of the two Falcon Heavy side boosters.
Photo by Jenny Hautmann for Supercluster
SpaceX will expend the center core of the Falcon Heavy rocket, and it will be dropped into the Atlantic Ocean.
SpaceX had multiple failed attempts at recovering a Falcon Heavy center core on a droneship. But the primary reason why SpaceX does not attempt to recover the center core is to allow the Falcon Heavy to put a greater amount of mass into Geostationary orbit. The Falcon Heavy rocket tends to be used for heavy geostationary satellites which requires the center core to be expended.
The center core will have its landing legs and grid fins removed to minimize weight.
Extraterrestrial life might exist under all sorts of conditions that humans would struggle to imagine. But we know of one set of conditions in which life flourishes in a multitude of shapes and sizes: the conditions found on Earth.
Because we know Earth has the right conditions for life, humans can then sharply narrow down the search for extraterrestrial life by searching only in places that have the conditions that Earth life requires: a source of energy, the presence of certain chemical compounds, and temperatures that allow liquid water to exist. Jupiter’s icy moon Europa seems to be just such a place.
Life needs a source of energy, the presence of certain chemical compounds, and temperatures that allow liquid water to exist. Jupiter’s icy moon Europa seems to be just such a place.
Scientists describe Europa as an "ocean world" because decades of evidence from analysis of spacecraft observations strongly suggest that an ocean of liquid water is hidden beneath the moon’s surface of ice. In fact, some of Europa’s characteristics would be extremely difficult to explain if the moon does not contain a global subsurface ocean.
Europa is not the only ocean world. Two of Saturn’s moons seem to be in the same category: tiny Enceladus has a global saltwater ocean that sprays out into space as a plume of icy particles that fly hundreds of miles above its surface, and the large moon Titan is thought to have a subsurface ocean as well.
But we begin our search with a world where research has been pursued for many decades, and where the questions to ask are very well defined.
Courtesy of NASA