Spaceflight Insider

NASA’s flyby of Europa mission begins design phase

This artist's rendering shows NASA's Europa mission spacecraft, which is being developed for a launch sometime in the 2020s. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This artist’s rendering shows NASA’s Europa mission spacecraft, which is being developed for a launch sometime in the 2020s. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

A NASA mission to investigate the habitability of Jupiter’s moon Europa, scheduled for launch in the 2020s, recently completed a major NASA review. NASA’s Europa multiple-flyby mission successfully completed its Key Decision Point-B review on February 15, allowing the mission to continue in its preliminary design phase, known as “Phase B”, beginning on February 27. 

During Phase A, 10 scientific instruments were selected to be developed to study Europa. The new mission phase is scheduled to continue through September 2018 and will result in a preliminary design of the spacecraft’s systems and subsystems. The testing of some of the spacecraft’s components, such as solar cells and science instrument detectors, began during Phase A and will continue into Phase B. During Phase B, subsystem vendors will be chosen as well as prototype elements of the science instruments. Spacecraft subassemblies will also be built and tested during this phase.

The development of a NASA mission is divided into four phases. Missions must successfully demonstrate at each step that they have met NASA’s requirements to demonstrate readiness to move on to the next phase. Phase B includes preliminary design work, and Phases C and D include final design, spacecraft fabrication, assembly and testing, and launch.

Following the Europa spacecraft’s launch in the 2020s, it will arrive in the Jupiter system after a journey of several years. The spacecraft will orbit Jupiter as often as every two weeks, providing several opportunities for close flybys of Europa. The spacecraft will perform up to 45 flybys of Europa during the prime mission, at altitudes varying from 1,700 miles to 16 miles (2,700 kilometers to 25 kilometers) above the surface.

The Europa mission spacecraft will study the icy moon’s surface at high resolution and investigate the composition and structure of its icy shell and interior. A thermal instrument will study Europa’s frozen surface in search of recent eruptions of liquid water at or near the surface, while other instruments will search for evidence of water and tiny particles in the moon’s thin atmosphere.

In 2012, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope spotted water vapor above the south polar region of Europa, providing possible evidence of water plumes. If the plume do exist, and they’re connected to a subsurface ocean, studying their composition would aid scientists in studying the chemical makeup of Europa’s potentially habitable environment without having to drill through layers of ice.

Video courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech



Jim Sharkey is a lab assistant, writer and general science enthusiast who grew up in Enid, Oklahoma, the hometown of Skylab and Shuttle astronaut Owen K. Garriott. As a young Star Trek fan he participated in the letter-writing campaign which resulted in the space shuttle prototype being named Enterprise. While his academic studies have ranged from psychology and archaeology to biology, he has never lost his passion for space exploration. Jim began blogging about science, science fiction and futurism in 2004. Jim resides in the San Francisco Bay area and has attended NASA Socials for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover landing and the NASA LADEE lunar orbiter launch.

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