An illustration depicts NASA's Europa Clipper spacecraft circling the moon of Jupiter. Image courtesy of NASA
ORLANDO, Fla., March 3 (UPI) -- NASA has started to assemble the Europa Clipper spacecraft that will probe the icy, scarred surface of Jupiter's moon, Europa, starting in 2030.
The agency has been designing and building 10 instruments for the $4.5 billion mission since 2016, and technicians are assembling the parts at NASA's California-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA announced Thursday.
NASA has tapped SpaceX to launch Europa Clipper from Florida in 2024 aboard the most powerful operational rocket today, the Falcon Heavy.
The Clipper carries more instruments than most interplanetary missions, Robert Pappalardo, NASA's Europa Clipper Project Scientist, told UPI in an email interview.
Ultimately, scientists want to explore whether Jupiter's fourth-largest moon has conditions to support life in its deep oceans, he said.
"It has a complement of 10 highly capable instruments with the overall goal of understanding the potential habitability of Europa," Pappalardo said. "Europa Clipper has the largest number of instruments and coordinated investigations of any mission going to the outer solar system."
Imagery from the Hubble Space Telescope showed icy plumes erupting from Europa's surface, indicating water below the ice that may be heated by Jupiter's extreme gravity.
But no mission to Jupiter has had the ability to look below Europa's surface for evidence of liquid water, he said.
"The Europa Clipper's sophisticated instrument suite is specifically designed to ... probe its watery interior, evaluate its composition and provide information on its geology and level of current activity," Pappalardo said.
If successful, the probe may designate a landing site for a future mission that could drill into the ice or probe it more deeply from the surface, he said.
"If we were to find an especially interesting location, with evidence for near-surface water, evidence of recent heat or plumes, and perhaps organic materials -- then that would be the kind of oasis that we would want to target," Pappalardo said.
The spacecraft will be about the size of an SUV with solar panels extending nearly the length of a basketball court.
Supply chain issues that have plagued high-tech industries since the COVID-19 pandemic began may still be a challenge, but NASA believes it can stay on schedule, Jordan Evans, Europa Clipper deputy project manager, said in an email.
"The team has been building the subsystems and instruments throughout the pandemic and has successfully managed the supply chain issues to date," Evans said. "With this resiliency, and with the team we have in place, we have high confidence in the overall schedule to meet our 2024 launch date."
The International Space Station is pictured from the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour during a flyaround of the orbiting lab that took place following its undocking from the Harmony module’s space-facing port on November 8. Photo courtesy of NASA