Thursday, June 13, 2024

Europa Clipper mission gets wheels that will guide it around Jupiter’s watery moon

The search for life beyond Earth and resources that could make humans interplanetary has been going on for decades, and the most probable candidate to offer some answers is Europa. A moon around Jupiter is believed to harbour more water than oceans on Earth.

Engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) are inching closer to launching a probe into this unique watery world. The Europa Clipper Mission is taking final shapes as four large reaction wheels have been installed on the spacecraft to keep it oriented as it flies above the lunar world.

The reaction wheels will help the spacecraft to stay pointed in the right direction. The reaction wheels are the same as those installed on rovers that are exploring Mars, trying to find evidence of ancient microbial life on the Red Planet. The mission will on these reaction wheels during its journey to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa.

“When NASA’s spacecraft heads through deep space, slip into orbit around Jupiter, and collects science observations while flying dozens of times by Europa, the wheels rotate the orbiter so that its antennas can communicate with Earth and its science instruments, including cameras, can stay oriented,” JPL said in a statement.

The reaction wheels are two feet wide and are made of steel, aluminum, and titanium that spin rapidly to create torque, which causes the orbiter to rotate in the opposite direction. The reaction wheels cause the spacecraft to react to the spinning action of the wheels. The reaction wheels will run on electricity provided by the spacecraft’s vast solar arrays.

JPL explained that to visualise how these wheels work imagine you are sitting in a swivel chair and lifting your feet off the floor so that you are free to rotate. If you jerk your torso in one direction, the chair and your legs will rotate in the opposite direction. The reaction wheels work the same way: As the reaction wheel’s motor accelerates the metal wheel in one direction, the spacecraft experiences acceleration in the opposite direction.

The Europa Clipper Mission will arrive at the Jupiter system in 2030 after its 2024 launch to explore the frozen world. Scientists believe Europa harbors a vast internal ocean that may have conditions suitable for supporting life. The spacecraft will gather data on the moon’s atmosphere, surface, and interior – information that will help scientists learn more about the ocean, the ice crust, and potential plumes that may be venting subsurface water into space.

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