JPL Meets Unique Challenge, Delivers Radar Hardware for Jupiter Mission

Despite COVID-19-related hurdles, crucial NASA instrument components for the European-led JUICE spacecraft have been delivered.

Engineers at
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory met a significant milestone recently by
delivering key elements of an ice-penetrating radar instrument for an ESA (European
Space Agency) mission to explore Jupiter and its three large icy moons.

While following
the laboratory’s stringent COVID-19 Safe-at-Work precautions, JPL teams managed
to build and ship the receiver, transmitter, and electronics necessary to
complete the radar instrument for the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE)

Set to launch
in 2022, JUICE will orbit Jupiter for three years, perform multiple flybys of
moons Callisto and Europa, then orbit Ganymede. The spacecraft will observe
Jupiter’s atmosphere up close as well as analyze the surfaces and interiors of
the three moons, which are believed to harbor liquid water under their icy crusts.

One of 10
instruments, the radar is key to exploring those moons. Called Radar for Icy
Moon Exploration, or RIME, it sends out radio waves that can penetrate the
surface up to 6 or 7 miles (10 kilometers) and collects data on how the waves
bounce back. Some of the waves penetrate the crust and reflect off subsurface
features – and the watery interiors – enabling scientists to “see”

In the case of
Europa, which is believed to have a global ocean beneath its crust, the radar
data will help gauge the thickness of the ice. NASA’s Europa
mission, set to
launch in the mid-2020s, will arrive around the same time as JUICE and collect
complementary science as it performs multiple flybys of Europa.

Building RIME During a Pandemic

A collaboration
between JPL in Southern California and the Italian Space Agency (ASI), JUICE’s RIME
is led by Principal Investigator Lorenzo Bruzzone of the University of Trento
in Italy. JPL’s responsibility was to make and deliver the transmitter and receiver
– the pieces that send out and pull in radio signals – as well as the
electronics that help those pieces communicate with RIME’s antenna. Now that
the components have been delivered to ASI in Rome, the next steps are to test and
integrate them before assembling the instrument.

“I’m really
impressed that the engineers working on this project were able to pull this
off,” said JPL’s Jeffrey Plaut, co-principal investigator of RIME. “We
are so proud of them, because it was incredibly challenging. We had a
commitment to our partners overseas, and we met that – which is very

NASA JPL engineers and technicians follow COVID-19 Safe-at-Work guidelines on Aug. 19, 2020, as they ship hardware for a radar instrument that will fly aboard JUICE, ESA’s (European Space Agency’s) mission to Jupiter. From front: Jeremy Steinert, Jordan Tanabe, Glenn Jeffery and Robert Johnson. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

› Full image and caption

In mid-March, engineers
had just finished building the transmitter and its corresponding set of
electronics. They were about to run an exhaustive regimen of tests to ensure the
equipment would survive deep space – including vibration, shock, and thermal
vacuum testing, which simulates the vacuum and extreme temperatures of space.

Then the coronavirus
pandemic forced most JPL’s employees to work remotely. The tests would have to

About a month
later, RIME engineers and technicians came back on-site after JPL put in place its
Safe-at-Work protocols, including – among other measures – social distancing,
mask-wearing, and frequent hand-washing. Now the team had a schedule crunch,
plus other new challenges. As one of the first teams to re-enter JPL (most
employees continue to work remotely), they needed to figure out new ways to do things
that used to be easy. Just finding screws and other fasteners, when the usual
supply shop wasn’t open, became a puzzle to solve.

Project Manager
Don Heyer had new human challenges as well.

“We needed
to keep people not just safe – but comfortable being there,” Heyer said.
“That was important, because otherwise they wouldn’t be able to do the job

The key to
moving forward was clearly defining next steps, he said. At the same time, they
needed to make safety requirements thorough, but not too much of an additional burden
for the staff. It was a learning experience, he said.

“But we
got there pretty quickly.”

more information about the JUICE mission, visit:

information about NASA’s Europa Clipper mission, visit:

News Media Contact

Gretchen McCartney

Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.


Grey Hautaluoma / Alana Johnson

NASA Headquarters, Washington

202-358-0668 / 202-358-1501 /


Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory

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