Jupiter, the king of the solar system, will receive new visitors. The largest planet orbiting the Sun is interesting, but its massive moons are the ultimate prize — some of them are hunks of icy rock that may hide oceans that harbor life beneath their surfaces.
The European Space Agency’s or ESA’s robotic mission JUICE, or Jupiter IC Moons Explorer, will launch to Jupiter on Thursday, aiming to take a closer look at Jupiter’s three moons, Callisto, Europa and Ganymede.
“This is one of the most exciting journeys we’ve ever made in the solar system,” said Joseph Aschbacher, head of ESA, and “extremely complex.”
Here’s what you need to know about Juice Mission.
When will the release happen and how can I see it?
The spacecraft will launch into space on an Ariane 5 rocket from the Guyana Space Center in French Guiana on the northeast coast of South America. The same type of rocket will launch the James Webb Space Telescope in December 2021 from a European-run launch pad.
What is Juice Mission and what does it read?
The six-tonne European spacecraft carries 10 state-of-the-art scientific instruments to study and take pictures of the moons. Jupiter is not the primary target of the mission. Instead, it aims to study the Solar System’s largest moon, Ganymede, and its two moons, Europa and Callisto.
But reaching Jupiter will take more than eight years, requiring the spacecraft to enter Jupiter’s orbit in July 2031 via a series of swings or gravity assists past Venus, Mars and Earth.
When JUICE finally reaches Jupiter, it will pass three moons repeatedly in a looping orbit, staying outside the giant planet’s dangerous radiation belts while collecting data. In total, 35 flybys are planned to confirm the presence and size of oceans beneath the moons’ surfaces as the spacecraft search for magnetic signals and other evidence. It will also monitor how the moons’ outer surfaces move in response to Jupiter’s gravity, which may be affected by surface oceans.
The most promising moon in the search for life is Europa. Astronomers think its ocean is in direct contact with a rocky floor, which could provide food and energy for life as hydrothermal vents erupt upward. Juice will perform two flybys of Europa.
The spacecraft will also perform 21 flybys of Callisto. The moon is not capable of supporting life in its ocean. Its surface is very old and covered with pits, and it lacks a solid core that can provide the nutrients an ocean needs for life.
“We don’t know why,” said Michael Dougherty of Imperial College London, who leads the magnetometer instrument on JUICE.
But the primary objective of the JUICE mission is to study Ganymede, a moon larger than Mercury. The spacecraft’s trajectory around the Jovian system should allow the spacecraft to capture orbit around Ganymede in December 2034 — the first spacecraft to orbit a moon in the outer solar system. Starting at about 3,100 miles above the surface, the spacecraft’s altitude will gradually be lowered to more than 300 miles by 2035 — perhaps lower, fuel permitting.
“If we have enough propellant, which means we’ve had a good trip to Jupiter without too many problems, we’ll lower the orbit to about 150 miles,” said Giuseppe Sarri, JUS’s program manager at ESA.
Orbiting Ganymede will allow scientists to better understand the moon’s properties. It is the only moon in the Solar System known to have its own magnetic field, possibly from a liquid iron core similar to our own planet. “If you were standing on the surface of Ganymede and you had a compass needle, it would point to the North Pole, just like on Earth,” Dr Dougherty said. “We need to understand why.”
The extract can trace Ganymede’s internal structure, including the size and volume of its ocean. It can even measure the amount of salt formed by minerals circulating in the ocean, which can feed life. “We’re trying to understand where the salts came from,” Dr. Dougherty noted.
Ganymede’s ocean is significantly different from Europa’s, but it may still be habitable.
“Life requires liquid water, a heat source and organic matter,” Dr. Dougherty said. “If we confirm or deny those three things, we’ve done what we said we were going to do.”
The mission could end with a crash landing on Ganymede’s surface in late 2035, unless a discovery is made during the mission that suggests it could contaminate the moon’s ocean.
What other missions will study Jupiter?
JUICE is not the only mission to explore Jupiter and its moons.
Juno, which has been orbiting Jupiter since 2016, has been orbiting Jupiter since 2016. Its focus is on the planet itself rather than its moons, although it has recently completed some close flybys of Europa and Ganymede, and will soon pass by the volcano Io.
But Juice is expected to be whisked to Jupiter by another new NASA mission, the Europa Clipper, which will launch in October 2024. It is scheduled to arrive in the Jovian system in April 2030, thanks to its powerful launch vehicle, the SpaceX Falcon heavy rocket. But no competition; Both tasks should work together.
“There will be two spacecraft looking at Jupiter and its moons at the same time,” Dr. Aschbacher said. “There’s a lot of science to be gained from that.”
Both expeditions were born in 2008 Amazing results from NASA’s Galileo spacecraftIt orbited Jupiter from 1995 to 2003.
“Galileo discovered this intriguing magnetic signal that suggested there was a conductive ice layer beneath Europa’s crust,” said Louis Proctor of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, who is part of the Europa Clipper team.
Scientists now think it’s a sign of a global ocean that covers Europa’s interior.
Observations by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2018 suggest that Europa may occasionally have its oceans fueled by fissures at least 10 miles thick in its icy shell. Clipper spears on the moon’s surface, sometimes as high as 15 miles, could provide a new way to directly probe the ocean and search for signs of life.
“We can fly through a plume,” Dr. Proctor said.
The results of both JUICE and CLIPPER will reveal whether future missions to Jupiter’s moons should attempt to directly detect marine life on Europa, which NASA has proposed. Such work may take two decades, but its scientific value is enormous. Dr. Aschbacher said Europe is interested in something similar.
“We discussed a sample return mission from one of the icy moons,” he said, which would bring material back to Earth for closer examination. “What we learn from Juice will be a very important input to that.”
For now, the spotlight is on Juice, the first spacecraft of a new era specifically designed to hunt the oceans of alien worlds. “I can’t wait,” said Dr. Dougherty. “This is the next step.”
“Friend of animals everywhere. Coffee maven. Professional food trailblazer. Twitter buff.”