Scientists believe that underneath the icy surface of Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, lies a vast salty ocean that could contain favorable conditions for life.
The Europa Clipper spacecraft will investigate this claim, and onboard will be a high-gain antenna (HGA) that will send and receive signals to and from Earth, beaming back “high-resolution images and scientific data from Europa Clipper’s cameras and science instruments,” according to NASA. Right now, however, a full-scale, 10-ft HGA prototype (Figure 1) is undergoing tests in the Experimental Test Range (ETR) at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.
“Several years ago we scoured the country to find a facility that was capable of making the difficult measurements that would be required on the HGA and found that the ETR clearly was it,” says Thomas Magner, assistant project manager for Europa Clipper at the Applied Physics Laboratory. “The measurements that will be performed in the ETR will demonstrate that the Europa Clipper mission can get a large volume of scientific data back to Earth and ultimately determine the habitability of Europa.”
Although testing will finish up relatively soon, the HGA will return to ETR again in 2020 “to conduct acceptance tests on Europa Clipper’s high-gain antenna flight article,” according to NASA.
Charmaine Franck, head of Langley’s Electromagnetics and Sensors Branch, says, “Our branch members are excited that these key test activities, achieved through specialized facility modifications and enhancements made to the ETR these past few years, are significantly contributing towards the ultimate success of the Europa Clipper. ETR has become a new NASA capability in space-based communications system research with its extended frequency range from X-band to Ka-band.”
The detailed reconnaissance mission of Europa will begin sometime in the 2020s. Depending on the launch vehicle and available planetary alignments, the spacecraft will take between three to seven years to get to Jupiter.