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The countdown to NASA's Jupiter mission is on. This JPL engineer is helping it happen

Ronald D. White, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

Think of meticulously handcrafted objects and certain things come immediately to mind: fine art, exotic cars, luxury timepieces.

But Pasadena native Steve Barajas spends his days building a bespoke item that's on another level entirely: NASA's Europa Clipper.

The 13,000-pound behemoth, with a solar-array wingspan the length of a basketball court, is one of the agency's most ambitious efforts. It's on an October countdown to launch to Jupiter and its moon Europa, atop a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, to find out if life exists in the deep ocean believed to lie beneath Europa's icy exterior.

The central body of the $5-billion Europa Clipper arrived in June 2022 at the Pasadena campus of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for the painstaking final assembly of components shipped from across the U.S. and Europe. That's where Barajas comes in.

Barajas, 35, is a mechanical engineer leading a team that, in coordination with other JPL specialists, installs crucial hardware for the ambitious mission. Barajas describes some high points with a parental flair: There's the magnetometer that could confirm whether an ocean exists beneath the Europa ice; the mass spectrometer that will analyze gases in Europa's atmosphere; the infrared cameras that will map the moon's surface composition, temperature and roughness; and the solar panels that will help power the spacecraft instruments.

The project's momentum to liftoff didn't spare the Europa Clipper team when JPL in early February laid off 530 people, or about 8% of its workforce, because of uncertainties over congressional funding for NASA. Although the job cuts, the second round this year, were felt "across the NASA family," NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said, "the Europa Clipper mission will proceed as planned."

 

In his official NASA bio, the UC Berkeley graduate recalls his childhood fascination with space. "As a kid, I remember passing the sign along the 210 Freeway that read 'NASA-JPL Next Exit,' thinking it was so cool that NASA was so close."

Barajas, who joined JPL in 2016 from Aerojet Rocketdyne, said his work has taught him the art of delayed gratification. If the Europa Clipper launches on schedule from the Kennedy Space Center, Barajas will have to wait 5½ years for it to arrive at Europa, about 488 million miles from Earth, where it will perform dozens of flybys of the moon to collect data.

"I'm working on a spacecraft that will hopefully find something profound in the future, and working with people who share the same passion," he said.

When JPL finishes the buildout, Barajas will be part of the team that flies to Florida in May for launch preparations, with liftoff scheduled for as early as Oct. 10 from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral.

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