MAR 27, 2024 10:40 AM PDT

Into the Unknown: Environmental Testing of the Europa Clipper Spacecraft

Like all spacecraft leading up to their launch date, NASA’s Europa Clipper has been undergoing rigorous tests and checkouts to ensure all systems are functioning properly, with NASA engineers recently subjecting the bus-sized orbiter to extreme environmental testing over a 16-day period to ensure the spacecraft can withstand the harsh conditions it will face during its 4-year science mission to the small, ocean world. These harsh conditions not only include the vacuum of space, but also electromagnetic radiation since it will be flying through Jupiter’s massive and powerful magnetic field throughout its mission.

“These were the last big tests to find any flaws,” said Jordan Evans, who is the Europa Clipper Project Manager at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). “Our engineers executed a well-designed and challenging set of tests that put the system through its paces. What we found is that the spacecraft can handle the environments that it will see during and after launch. The system performed very well and operates as expected.”

The tests included putting Europa Clipper into NASA’s well-known thermal vacuum chamber (TVAC), more commonly known as the 25-foot Space Simulator, where engineers not only removed all the air in the chamber but reduced the temperatures to ensure Europa Clipper’s hundreds of heating sensors could keep the spacecraft warm enough to function properly. Additionally, the engineers performed checkouts of Clipper’s electrical and magnetic systems, vibrations, sounds, and shock tests, essentially performing an entire shakedown of Europa Clipper prior to its delivery for launch later this spring.

Image of Europa Clipper in the 25-Foot Space Simulator at NASA JPL in February 2024, where it was subjected to a litany of tests to ensure it can withstand the harsh environments on Jupiter. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

“There still is work to be done, but we’re on track for an on-time launch,” said Evans. “And the fact that this testing was so successful is a huge positive and helps us rest more easily.”

After arriving at Jupiter in 2030, Europa Clipper’s primary objectives include determining the habitability potential for Europa, which contains a large interior liquid water ocean beneath its icy crust that could contain ingredients for life as we know it, and possibly life itself.

Artist's impression of NASA's Europa Clipper in its final form orbiting Europa. (Credit: NASA) 

What new discoveries will Europa Clipper make about Europa in the coming years and decades? Only time will tell, and this is why we science!

As always, keep doing science & keep looking up!

Sources: NASA, NASA (1), Wikipedia

About the Author
Master's (MA/MS/Other)
Laurence Tognetti is a six-year USAF Veteran who earned both a BSc and MSc from the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University. Laurence is extremely passionate about outer space and science communication, and is the author of "Outer Solar System Moons: Your Personal 3D Journey".
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