ESA’s Jupiter-bound Probe Hits Antenna Snag

While the few minutes it takes for a spacecraft’s booster rocket to claw its way out of Earth’s gravity well might be the most obviously hazardous period of the mission, an incredible number of things still need to go right before anyone on the ground can truly relax. Space is about as unforgiving an environment as you can imagine, and once your carefully designed vehicle is on its way out to the black, there’s not a whole lot you can do to help it along if things don’t go according to plan.

That’s precisely where the European Space Agency (ESA) currently finds themselves with their Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (Juice) spacecraft. The April 14th launch from the Guiana Space Centre went off without a hitch, but when the probe’s 16 meter (52 foot) radar antenna was commanded to unfurl, something got jammed up. Judging by the images taken from onboard cameras, the antenna has only extended to roughly 1/3rd its total length.

An onboard view of the antenna.

The going theory is that one of the release pins has gotten stuck somewhere, preventing the antenna from moving any further. If that’s the case, it could mean jiggling the pin a few millimeters would get them back in the game. Unfortunately, there’s no gremlins with little hammers stowed away in the craft, so engineers on the ground will have to get a little more creative.

It’s hoped that engine burns could be used to shake the craft, and potentially knock the pin out. They’re also looking at rotating the vehicle to move the antenna mount in and out of the sunlight — the idea being that some expansion and contraction of the metal components could also free things up.

Even in the absolute worse case, the Radar for Icy Moons Exploration (RIME) antenna is just one of ten instruments Juice will use to study Ganymede, Callisto, and Europa. So while it would be disappointing if they can’t get it online, the mission would still provide a wealth of information about these fascinating worlds.

Then again, Juice isn’t scheduled to reach Jupiter until at least July of 2031, so there’s still plenty of time to try and figure something out. After all, it wouldn’t be the first deep-space probe saved by a clever hack.

27 thoughts on “ESA’s Jupiter-bound Probe Hits Antenna Snag

    1. Now why didn’t they think of that!!

      If the release pin is stuck and preventing the antenna from extending fully, there are a few potential solutions you could consider:

      1. Troubleshoot remotely: If possible, try to remotely diagnose the issue and send commands to the spacecraft to see if the pin can be released. This could involve sending commands to activate the pin’s release mechanism, or to apply pressure or vibration to the pin to dislodge it.

      2. Use backup systems: If the primary release mechanism is not working, check if there are any backup systems that can be used to release the pin. This could involve deploying a secondary mechanism or using a different approach altogether, such as using a small explosive charge to dislodge the pin.

      3. Wait and see: It’s possible that the pin may become dislodged over time due to temperature changes or other factors. Depending on the mission objectives and constraints, it may be possible to wait and see if the pin becomes unstuck on its own.

      4. Send a repair mission: Depending on the severity of the issue and the resources available, it may be possible to send a repair mission to the spacecraft to physically free the pin and allow the antenna to extend fully.

      Ultimately, the best course of action will depend on the specifics of the spacecraft and the mission objectives, as well as the resources and constraints of the mission team.

      1. Shnanigans!

        You didn’t even specify the pin on ‘what’. ChatGPT is just regurgitating the discussions it mined on Reddit. If you asked ChatGPT of two weeks ago the same question, what would the answer be?

        We need to trick ChatGPT into reading 4Chan/b. That’s how we kill it. Turn it into a /bTard, then point and laugh. There are alternatives Fark would make it even dumber, but much less entertaining.

        1. I really don’t know how Chat GPT works on the sourcing information side. Days ago I asked it about the win of Argentina in the 2022 soccer world cup and it didn’t know nothing about it.

      2. It would have been nice if they could’ve figure out a special recovery mission to send out to un-jam the big antenna on the Galileo Jupiter probe.

        A special probe with a device built to pop the antenna free could have been built and sent out to catch up with Galileo. Several of the antenna rib tips had become stuck in the holes which held the antenna in its furled position.

        The theory was that the lubricant applied when the antenna was built had either been partially worn away during the times it was transported by truck (backed up by most of the stuck ribs having been on the lower side, closest to the trailers it was carried on), or became too thick during the extended time between when it was lubed and launched and the extended time in transit during the Venus, Earth, Earth trajectory used to get it to Jupiter.

        Another factor was the two motors used to drive the opening mechanism were lowest bidder shite. The antenna mechanism had been tested a few times before the probe was launched and it was found that every attempt to un-jam it in space, the motors produces less and less torque. Ask for motors that are intended to only be used once, and you’ll get motors that aren’t built to operate for thousands of hours.

  1. The article laments that “there’s no gremlins with little hammers stowed away in the craft”. Wonder when it will be practical to include a small self-propelled maintenance robot abord that could go out and do simple tasks like nudge a stuck part, or even just to take a close up photograph of the problem area. Would have to be semi-autonomous to complete an assigned task and not remotely operated due to the long time delay in transmission once it gets some distance from earth. Of course it would have to depend on the mothership for power recharging and long distance communication.

    1. Rarely practical vs. using that same mass budget to augment existing mechanisms. It’s the same reason why solar-panel-cleaners for Mars landers never make it off the drawing board: if you have X kg to spare on a brush/blower/shaker/etc, you can instead use those X kg to add X kg of larger solar array, and not only end up with the same amount of power after the inevitable dust settling, but also [i]more[/i] power before then, [i]and[/i] avoid the risk of total mission loss from catastrophic damage to the array from a mechanical system failing (e.g. brush mech applying too much pressure and abrading panels, blower stuck on and bending array to oblique angle, shaker fatiguing support structures ands napping array off, etc).

      A mini-free-flyer needs not only the flyer itself (own propellant source, own engines, own avionics, own cameras, own manipulator, etc) but also all the support hardware on the host vehicle (comms, docking system, possibly propellant reservoir, handling, transport, and top-up for tiny free-flyer tanks, etc) but also provision for free-flyer failure (e.g. if the free-flyers propellant tanks burst during launch, is the host vehicle armoured enough to avoid damage).

  2. I’d like to see an interstellar craft make it all 25 light years to another solar system intact, when half the time they can’t keep it together all the way to a planet relatively next door to us.

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