NASA’s Europa Clipper gets its own wheels for deep space travel

Engineers install 2-foot-wide reaction wheels on the main body of NASA’s Europa Clipper spacecraft. The orbiter is in its operational phase of assembly, test and launch in preparation for a 2024 launch. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The huge spacecraft that will head towards Jupiter’s moon Europa uses four large reaction wheels to maintain orientation.

Just as NASA’s Mars rovers rely on sturdy wheels to roam the Red Planet and conduct scientific research, some orbiters also rely on wheels—in this case, reaction wheels—to stay pointed in the right direction. Engineers and technicians at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California recently installed four reaction wheels on Europa Clipper, which will rely on them on its journey to Jupiter’s frigid moon Europa.

When NASA’s spacecraft heads into deep space, orbits Jupiter and collects science observations as it flies by Europa dozens of times, the orbiter’s wheels rotate so its antennas can communicate with Earth and its scientific instruments, including television cameras, can remain oriented .

Two feet wide and made of steel, aluminum, and titanium, the wheels spin rapidly to create torque that spins the orbiter in the opposite direction. Isaac Newton’s third law of motion also applies in deep space and explains the underlying phenomenon: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Reaction wheels cause the spacecraft to react to the spinning action of the wheels.

NASA's Europa Clipper gets its own wheels for deep space travel

All four of the reaction wheels installed on NASA’s Europa Clipper are visible in this photo, which was taken from underneath the main body of the spacecraft as it was being assembled. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Here’s one way to visualize how reaction wheels work: Imagine you’re sitting in a swivel chair and you lift your feet off the floor so you’re free to spin. If you move your torso in one direction, the chair and legs will rotate in the opposite direction. Reaction wheels work the same way: as the reaction wheel motor accelerates the metal wheel in one direction, the spacecraft experiences acceleration in the opposite direction.

Without those reaction wheels, Europa Clipper would be unable to carry out its scientific investigations when it arrives in the Jupiter system in the 2030s following its launch in 2024. Scientists believe that Europa carries a vast internal ocean that could have conditions suitable to sustain the life. The spacecraft will collect data about the moon’s atmosphere, surface and interior, information that will help scientists learn more about the ocean, ice crust and potential plumes that could vent groundwater into space.

NASA's Europa Clipper gets its own wheels for deep space travel

Engineers and technicians work together to install reaction wheels on the underside of the main body of NASA’s Europa Clipper spacecraft, which is in its operational phase of assembly, testing and launch. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

During its orbits around Jupiter, Europa Clipper will rely on the reaction wheels to help it make thousands of revolutions, or “spins”. While the spacecraft can perform some of these maneuvers with thrusters, its thrusters require fuel, a limited resource aboard the orbiter. The reaction wheels will run on electricity supplied by the spacecraft’s vast solar arrays.

The trade-off is that the reaction wheels run slowly. It will take the Europa Clipper’s reaction wheels about 90 minutes to rotate the aircraft 180 degrees, a movement so gradual that from a distance it would be imperceptible to the human eye. The rotation of the spacecraft will be three times slower than the minute hand of a clock.

Also, they can wear out over time. It happened on NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, requiring engineers to figure out how to rotate using thrusters with available fuel. To solve this problem, the engineers installed four wheels on the Europa Clipper even though only three are needed for maneuvering. They alternate which three wheels are in operation to even out the wear. That leaves them with a “spare” tire if one of the others fails.

The installation of the wheels was one of the most recent phases of the phase known as the assembly, test and launch operations. Scientific instruments continue to arrive at JPL to be added to the spacecraft. Next, a series of tests will be conducted as the spacecraft moves into its October 2024 launch period. After traveling more than 1.8 billion miles (2.9 billion kilometers), Europa Clipper will begin unveiling the secrets of this frozen world.

Citation: NASA’s Europa Clipper Gets Its Wheels For Deep Space Travel (2022, Nov. 23) Retrieved Nov. 24, 2022, from https://phys.org/news/2022-11-nasa-europa-clipper-wheels- deep.html

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