Europa Clipper
This artist's rendering shows NASA's Europa mission spacecraft, which is being developed for a launch sometime in the 2020s. The concept image shows two large solar arrays extending from the sides of the spacecraft, to which the mission's ice-penetrating radar antennas are attached. A saucer-shaped high-gain antenna is also side mounted, with a magnetometer boom placed next to it. On the forward end of the spacecraft (at left in this view) is a remote-sensing palette, which houses the rest of the science instrument payload. NASA/JPL-Caltech

As the Cassini spacecraft prepares for a suicidal dive into the thick atmosphere of Saturn on Sept. 15, a maneuver that will burn the spacecraft to avoid contamination of the planet’s moons, NASA is already looking at its next mission to a gas giant that has been inspired partially by Cassini’s study of the Saturn system.

To be launched in the early 2020s, the mission named Europa Clipper will fly a spacecraft to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa to study it for potential habitability. While another NASA mission in the 1990s — Galileo — first suggested there could be a salty liquid ocean under Europa’s icy surface, Cassini’s findings from Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus suggest the much larger Jovian moon could have chemical processes capable of potentially supporting biology.

Europa, which is slightly smaller than our own moon, is the only non-Earth body other than Enceladus which is thought to have an ocean and a rocky floor beneath it. The total amount of ocean water on Europa is thought to be about twice contained in all of Earth’s oceans put together.

“Cassini has transformed our thinking in so many ways, but especially with regard to surprising places in the solar system where life could potentially gain a foothold,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at Headquarters in Washington, D.C., said in a statement Friday.

Once launched, Europa Clipper will take several years to reach its destination. It will use a similar design concept as Cassini’s orbital flybys to study Europa as it stays in orbit around Jupiter, making orbits once every 12-14 days for a total of 45 flybys of the moon, from distances varying between 16 miles and 1,700 miles . The numerous large moons of the planet will provide gravitational assistance to the spacecraft in the manoeuvres that will bring it close to Europa.

Many scientists and engineers who worked on Cassini are also working on the Europa Clipper mission, and upgraded and improved versions of some of the instruments aboard Cassini will also be affixed on Europa Clipper.

In February, the mission entered Phase B, which moves it ahead in the preliminary design phase. At the end of this phase in September 2018, the preliminary design for the mission’s systems and subsystems would be complete. It will also see the testing of some spacecraft components like solar panels and science instrument detectors.

The name of the mission, Europa Clipper, was inspired by the clipper ships that sailed the seas and oceans of Earth in the 19th century. These ships had three masts each and streamlined shapes, allowing them to sail pretty fast by the standards of the day. The upcoming mission will also see the spacecraft pass Europa speedily.

“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,” Robert Pappalardo, Europa Clipper project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said in a statement in March, when the mission’s name was finalized.

Europa Clipper will photograph the Jovian moon at high resolutions, investigate its composition and study the structure of its icy shell as well as its interior.