NASA takes a step closer to searching for life on Jupiter Moon

JThere is a very low chance that you will enter the room known as High Bay 1 at NASA and Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. If by chance you got inside, you certainly couldn’t get in as you are. First, you would enter an antechamber where automated brushes would be applied to your shoes to remove any dirt or loose particles; Then you would stand under an air shower that would blow lint, dirt, and any other stray debris off your clothes. After that, you would go to a room where you would stand on a sticky mat to make sure the bottom of your shoes were also clean, and finally, you would put on a so-called bunny costume – a dress, a cover-up chef, and, no matter how clean your shoes are now, cloth slippers.

Only then will you be allowed to enter High Bay 1, a 14m (45ft) high and 21m (68ft) wide volume of space that qualifies as a classroom clean room 10,000, which means there are less than 10,000 particles of 0.5 microns or larger per cubic foot of air. (A micron is about 100 times smaller than the width of a human hair). the Europa Clipper has just been set up for assembly and testing in preparation for its launch in 2024.

Weighing 6,000 kg (13,000 lb) and measuring 3 m (10 ft) high and 1.5 m (5 ft) in diameter, the Europa Clipper will be launched aboard a Falcon Heavy rocket over a period of six years, 2.8 billion km (1.8 billion mile) looped path to reach what may be the most promising place in our solar system for extraterrestrial life: Europa, Jupiter’s bright white moon. Measuring 90% of the diameter of our moon, Europa is covered in a shell of water ice 15 to 25 km (10 to 15 mi) thick, capping a warm ocean girdling the globe up to 150 km (100 mi) deep. This unique European ocean contains twice as much water as all of Earth’s oceans combined, and Europa Clipper is designed to know more about it.

The spacecraft will not land on Europa, but is designed to make at least 50 close flybys of the moon, using a suite of instruments to take its chemical and geological measurement. Among the onboard equipment are a plasma sensor for carrying out magnetic surveys of the surface and subsoil; a high-resolution wide-angle camera; a thermal emission system; and an ultraviolet spectrograph. All of this equipment and more will be painstakingly installed in the spacecraft over the next two years, and the scene at High Bay 1 today is intensely focused and intensely busy. A heavy canopy is currently bolted into place on the spacecraft to shield the delicate instruments from the intense radiation field that surrounds Jupiter; propulsion tanks that will supply fuel to 24 on-board thrusters are being fixed; and nearly 640 m (2,100 ft) of gleaming copper wiring – enough to wrap twice around a football field – is strung inside the ship’s body.

The labor won’t come cheap: the Europa Clipper mission will cost NASA at least $4.25 billion in design, construction and operating costs. But the space community, especially biologists who specialize in studying the possibility of extraterrestrial life, think it will be worth it. The rule of life – at least life as we know it – has always been to follow the water. It is what gave rise to life on Earth – and it is what could also have given rise to life on Europa. The answers – or at least clues – to this era question may soon be coming, and it’s in High Bay 1 that the work to find them began in earnest this week.

This story originally appeared in TIME Space, our weekly newsletter covering all things space. You can register here.

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at [email protected]


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