NASA approves the design of the ‘Europa Clipper’, the first probe created to study an extraterrestrial ocean

The final design of the probe has been approved and it is expected that the launch can take place in 2024

Jupiter’s icy moon Europa is one of the bodies in the solar system most likely to support life

Beneath its icy surface a great ocean of liquid and possibly salty water has been discovered

NASA’s next mission to the Jovian system is progressing as scheduled for launch in 2024. Earlier this month the ‘Europa Clipper’ probe has passed its critical design review and experts say it is ready to complete its assembly and test its sophisticated instruments intended to study the habitability of the gas giant’s moon Europa in the immense ocean that shelters under the thick layer of ice that covers it.

The Ocean under the ice of Europa is twice the size of all the oceans on Earth Combined, and the moon has enormous potential to host conditions suitable for life as we know it on our planet.

There are also drawbacks: the environment so far from the Sun is freezing and Europe is permanently battered by the radiation emitted by Jupiter. Although the enormous size of the planet that orbits this moon is also what allows it to have an ocean of liquid water inside it because it is the immense gravity of the planet that pulls Europa in what is known as tidal effect. The moon contracts and expands due to this gravitational pull and that is what generates the heat inside it.

However, the extreme conditions of the giant planet system, especially the intense radiation, make NASA’s mission a difficult goal. The orbiter ‘Europa Clipper’ plans to circle Europa in an elliptical orbit and at each pass measure the composition of the surface and its geology, study the conditions and depth of its ocean and look for plumes of water vapor that may be rising from the frozen crust.

At the moment the development of the ship is progressing as planned. The critical design review just carried out has thoroughly examined all the details of the plans for all the scientific instruments the probe will carry: cameras, antennas, flight subsystems, including propulsion, power, avionics and computer. Of flight.

We demonstrate that the design of our project system is sound“stated Europa Clipper project manager Jan Chodas of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.” Our plans to complete the development and integration of the individual parts remain and the system in place. their set will work as designed to collect the scientific measurements we need to explore the potential habitability of Europe. ”

Probe components are already under construction

Beyond the design table, mission managers have already built engineering prototypes and models to test how engineering instruments and subsystems will work. The ship itself is also under construction and the manufacturing of engineering subsystems and instruments have received the green light over the last year and a half.

The ‘Europa Clipper’ is about three meters in diameter but with its panels unfolded, which are also under construction, it will reach a size slightly greater than that of a basketball court, about 30 meters. The disk-shaped high-gain antenna, which will receive commands from Earth and transmit scientific data, is in its final stage of assembly.

Also under construction are the telecommunications module for radio communications with the Earth and the radiation monitor to measure the electron bombardment that will hit the spacecraft during its more than 40 flybys over Europa.

To protect itself from this radiation, the probe will carry a shield which is also under construction at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

“It is a very exciting moment for the team, seeing the fruits of their work that will orbit Jupiter in a few years,” said Europa Clipper deputy director of projects, Jordan Evans, of JPL who has insisted that, even in times of covid, the team has continued to work adopting security measures and diverting all tasks that could be done at home to teleworking.

Studying an alien ocean

As construction progresses, those responsible for the project are also working on the experiments that the probe will carry out when it reaches its destination. The ‘Europa Clipper’ incorporates instruments for measure the depth of the moon’s ice crust and the inner ocean what’s hidding. Also for analyze how thick and salty the ocean is and it carries cameras that will capture color images of the surface geology in detail and analyze possible steam plumes emerging from the surface.

Scientists are especially interested in what exactly the surface of Europa is made of. Evidence suggests that the material seen on its icy crust comes from within, seeping through crevices or vents to the surface. The ‘Europa Clipper’ will also investigate the moon’s field of gravity, which will provide new data on how Europa expands and contracts when Jupiter pulls on it and how that action could be the method by which its immense internal ocean is heated. .

We are doing work that within a decade will change the way we think about the diversity of worlds in the outer solar system.r, and about where life could exist at this time, not in the distant past, “predicted JPL scientist Robert Pappalardo.

The mission of the ‘Europa Clipper’ is not to seek life but the necessary conditions for life. To find that life, one would have to drill through the ice of the moon and navigate its ocean with an underwater probe. For that challenge there are also plans at NASA, but for now they are just that, plans.