The odds are very slim that you’ll ever get inside the room known as High Bay 1 at NASA and Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. If by some chance you did get inside, you certainly couldn’t just walk in as you are. First, you’d enter an anteroom where automated brushes would be applied to your shoes to remove any loose dirt or particles; next you’d stand under an air shower that would blow lint, dirt, and any other stray debris from your clothes. Following that you’d move to a robing room where you’d stand on a sticky mat to ensure the bottom of your shoes were clean as well, and finally, you’d don a so-called bunny suit—robe, head cover, and, never mind how clean your shoes are by now, cloth booties.
Only then would you be allowed inside High Bay 1, a 14 m (45 ft) tall, 21 m (68 ft) wide volume of space that qualifies as a Class 10,000 clean room—meaning that there are fewer than 10,000 particles 0.5 microns or larger per cubic foot of air. One micron equals 100x the width of one human hair. But it would be worth the scrubbing down to enter the storied room, especially this week—since, as NASA reports, the main body of the new spacecraft known as the Europa Clipper was just rolled into place for assembly and testing in preparation for its 2024 launch.
Weighing in at 6,000 kg (13,000 lbs) and measuring 3 m (10 ft) tall and 1.5 m (5 ft) across, the Europa Clipper will be launched aboard a Falcon Heavy rocket on a six-year, 2.8 billion km (1.8 billion mile) looping trajectory to reach what might be the most promising place in our solar system for extraterrestrial life: Jupiter’s bright white moon Europa. Europa measures 90% of the moon’s diameter and is covered in a layer of water ice between 15-25 km (10-15 mi) thick. This creates a warm ocean that stretches across the globe, up to 150km (100 miles) deep. That single Europan ocean holds twice as much water as all of the Earth’s oceans combined—and Europa Clipper is built to learn more about it.
While the spacecraft is not expected to land on Europa’s surface, it will make 50 flybys at close range of its moon. It will use a variety of instruments to determine its chemical and geological properties. The hardware on board includes a plasma sensor that takes magnetic soundings from the surface, subsurface and ground; a wide angle high resolution camera; thermal emission system; as well as an ultraviolet spectrograph. This equipment, along with many others, will be installed meticulously in the spacecraft during the next two year. High Bay 1’s scene today is extremely focused and bustling. A heavy vault is currently being bolted into place on the spacecraft to protect the delicate instruments from the intense radiation field that surrounds Jupiter; propulsion tanks that will feed fuel to 24 on-board thrusters are being attached; and nearly 640 m (2,100 ft) of bright copper cabling—enough to wrap twice around a football field—is being threaded inside the body of the ship.
NASA will spend at least $4.25 Billion on the Europa Clipper mission’s design, construction and operations costs. But the space community—especially the biologists who specialize in studying the possibility of extraterrestrial life—believe it will be more than worth it. The rule for life—at least life as we know it—has always been follow the water. That’s what gave rise to life on Earth—and that’s what might have given rise to life on Europa too. Answers—or at least clues—to that epochal question could be coming soon, and it is in High Bay 1 that the work to find them got underway in earnest this week.
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