NASA’s Europa Clipper is designed to search for conditions suitable for life on Jupiter’s ice covered moons. On August 14, the spacecraft received a piece of hardware central to this quest: a massive dish-shaped high-gain antenna. Extending 10 feet (3 meters) across the spacecraft’s body, the high-gain antenna is the largest and most prominent of the array of antennas on the Europa Clipper.
The spacecraft will need it to explore the ice-covered moon for which it is named, Europa, about 444 million miles (715 million kilometers) from Earth. The main goal of the mission is to learn more about the lunar subsurface ocean, which could contain a habitable environment.
NASA’s Deep Space Network on Earth
Once the spacecraft reaches Jupiter, the antenna’s radio beam will be pointed closely at Earth. Creating this narrow, concentrated beam is what high gain antennas are all about. The name refers to the antenna’s ability to focus energy, allowing the spacecraft to transmit high-powered signals back to NASA’s Deep Space Network on Earth. This will mean a flood of scientific data at high transfer rates.
The precision-engineered dish was attached to the spacecraft in carefully choreographed stages over the course of several hours in the Spacecraft Assembly Facility bay at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “The antenna successfully completed all of its stand-alone tests,” Matthew Bray said a few days before the antenna was installed. “Once the spacecraft has completed its final testing, the radio signals will be fed back through the antenna through a special housing, verifying that the telecommunications signal paths are functional.”
Based at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, Bray is the designer and lead engineer of the high-gain antenna, which he began working on in 2014. It’s been quite a journey for Bray and for the antenna.
NASA’s Europa Clipper
In the past year alone, he’s seen the antenna criss-cross the country in preparation for installation. Its ability to accurately transmit data was tested twice in 2022 at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Between the two visits, the antenna stopped at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, where it underwent vibration and thermal vacuum testing to see if it could handle the shocks of launch and the extreme temperatures of space.
Then it was off to JPL in October 2022 for installation on the spacecraft in preparation for shipment next year to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The long journey to Jupiter begins with a launch from Kennedy in October 2024.
NASA’s Europa Clipper in their view
“The high-gain antenna is a critical element in building the Europa Clipper,” said Jordan Evans, Clipper project manager at JPL. “It is a highly visible piece of hardware that provides the capability the spacecraft needs to send science data back from Europa. Not only does it look like a spacecraft now that it has a large antenna, but it is ready for the critical tests ahead as we move toward launch.”
The spacecraft will train nine science instruments on Europa, all of which will produce a wealth of rich data: high-resolution color and stereo images to study its geology and surface; infrared thermal imaging to find warmer areas where water might be near the surface; reflected infrared light for mapping ice, salts and organics; and ultraviolet light values that help determine the composition of atmospheric gases and surface materials.
Clipper will bounce ice-penetrating radar off the subsurface ocean to determine its depth as well as the thickness of the ice crust above it. The magnetometer will measure the moon’s magnetic field to confirm the existence of a deep ocean and ice thickness. “I’ve never worked on anything of this magnitude in terms of physical size and also in terms of just general interest,” she said. “Little children know where Jupiter is. They know what Europe looks like. It’s great to start working on something that has the potential to have such a huge impact in terms of knowledge for humanity.”
After completing this major milestone, Europa Clipper has a few more steps and a few more tests ahead of it as it prepares to travel to the outer solar system.
More about the mission
The Europa Clipper’s main science goal is to determine whether there are places beneath Jupiter’s icy moon Europa that could support life. The mission’s three main science goals are to determine the thickness of the lunar ice cover and its surface interactions with the ocean beneath it, to study its composition, and to characterize its geology.