NASA decided to proceed through the final-design phase, and into construction and testing of the Europa Clipper mission spacecraft intended for a space probe to one of Jupiter’s moons called Europa.
For years, the American space agency has shared its interest in sending a probe to Europa. And, the announcement solidifies the apparent action towards executing the plan.
Europa Clipper’s primary goal is to determine if there are any signs of life and habitability in Jupiter’s moon through a probe or an orbiter, which will be performing several flybys over the 1,940-mile-wide (3,120 kilometers) Jovian moon.
Initially, back in June 2015, the Europa Clipper mission entered its development stage after NASA scientists discovered the existence of sea salt on Europa. That very discovery led NASA scientists to believe that life would have been possible or could be possible despite the moon’s current icy exterior.
Two years later, in 2017, researchers first made the Europa Clipper mission public by presenting a boxy lander that would study the moon’s surface further and witness what lies below the water-ice that’s shrouding the moon.
After the team’s presentation, they went on to develop the data antenna — which they plan on using to probe the moon — despite uncertainty whether NASA will confirm or not.
Scientists stressed and speculate that Europa is the best potential candidate to support life in the Solar System aside from Earth. And, they believe that the water — which is in contact with the moon’s rocky core — could possibly reveal an interesting range of chemical reactions.
If there’s a corresponding water ocean underneath the moon’s icy surface, NASA is hoping to find evidence of alien life or the remnants.
Fast forward to 2019, NASA has finally decided to give the Europa Clipper the go sign and put it on a tentative mid-2020s launch date.
Other than signs of life, the probe will also attempt to gauge the moon’s habitability by characterizing the moon’s suspected water ocean during its flybys and collect other necessary data that would allow further study. Particularly, geographical data that would suggest the optimum area for a lander to place a rover.
However, Europa lies within the radiation belts encircling Jupiter. Though Clipper will be carrying 150kg (331lb) of titanium armor to protect its sensitive instruments, it can’t conduct a constant orbit around the moon. Instead, it will circle Jupiter and do flybys to minimize radiation exposure.
“We are all excited about the decision that moves the Europa Clipper mission one key step closer to unlocking the mysteries of this ocean world,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., said in a statement.
“We are building upon the scientific insights received from the flagship Galileo and Cassini spacecraft and working to advance our understanding of our cosmic origin, and even life elsewhere,” Zurbuchen said, referring to NASA probes that orbited Jupiter and Saturn, respectively.
If all goes to plan, Europa Clipper is set to launch as early as 2023, where the current NASA administration says is developing to ensure a cost-effective method to get the Jupiter-orbiting probe to its destined location. Nonetheless, NASA could possibly launch as late as 2025
Additionally, Congress had NASA to launch the spacecraft atop the agency’s Space Launch System (SLS) megarocket, which is still in development.
SLS is an American space shuttle intended to thrust rockets into space from Americal soil. Once finished, SLS will be NASA’s most powerful rocket in existence with a total thrust greater than that of Saturn V.
The SLS is running behind schedule and way over budget. Hence, either the launch date could slip, or the probe could latch on to another rocket. The consequence, however, it will get to Europa much more slowly.
Currently, SLS’ first flight is targeted for 2020, which will oversee the Artemis-1 launch — an uncrewed mission that will send NASA’s Orion capsule to a journey around the moon.
The effort is part of NASA’s ambitious plan to return to the moon along with the first woman in the Artemis mission by 2024.
For now, it cannot be determined if Europe Clipper will push ahead for a 2023 launch (which is before the awaited Artemis mission launch), or will push back for a 2025 launch instead.
The Europa Clipper mission is managed by the Planetary Missions Program Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, and its development is led by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California in collaboration with the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory for the Science Mission Directorate.