NASA has announced that the mission to Europa that will be launched in the 2020s will be formally named Europa Clipper. This name has already been informally used by employees working on the project and was inspired by a fast type of merchant ship known as clippers, which were traditionally used to swiftly ship products such as tea across oceans.
Fans of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey may be disappointed that this isn’t going to be a crewed mission to Jupiter yet again, but the JPL personnel who are managing this project for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate hesitate to leave the probe in the vicinity of Europa for very long at a time because the intense radiation in the vicinity of this moon’s orbit could fry the electronics. Like the traditional clippers, the Europa Clipper is expected to orbit Jupiter quickly, zip by Europa once every two weeks, and zip out again to extend the life of the electronics in a radiation environment that is made more intense by Jupiter’s enormous dynamo effect.
“During each orbit, the spacecraft spends only a short time within the challenging radiation environment near Europa. It speeds past, gathers a huge amount of science data, then sails on out of there,” said Robert Pappalardo, Europa Clipper project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
When the probe arrives at Jupiter several years after launch, it will search for liquid water, chemical signatures and energy sources that might indicate habitability. NASA has made this a priority because scientists already suspect that Europa has a salty liquid water ocean under its icy crust, which makes it one of the few places in the solar system that may play host to native carbon-based life.
The prime mission has Europa Clipper making 40 to 45 passes near Europa to send back data about conditions on this moon. This mission may be extended if the spacecraft is still in good condition.