An ambitious space project is underway to help answer a fundamental question about our universe: does life exist elsewhere in the solar system?
On April 14, the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) launched successfullywith the objective of the largest planet in our orbit.
After 13 years in the making, the craft departed from the European Space Agency’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.
(Illustration credit: Shutterstock/ joshimerbin)
The mission is expected to arrive in the Jovian system (i.e. the region of our outer planets) in mid-2031. But the craft will perform a number of maneuvers on the way to Jupiter and its moons.
Notably, it will be the first craft to perform lunar-Earth gravity assist, taking advantage of the moon’s gravity to help steer it to its destination, saving a significant amount of fuel during its journey.
“JUICE will achieve a number of firsts in the exploration of the solar system,” says Athena Coustenis, an astrophysicist specializing in planetary science and who helped develop the JUICE mission.
Learn more: The Lonely Universe: Is Life on Earth Just a Fluke?
Jupiter moons with water
After the lunar slingshot, JUICE will head to Ganymede, Europa and Callisto orbiting Jupiter.
These three Jovian moons are of the greatest interest to scientists because it is possible that they contain vast reservoirs of liquid water.
“It will be the first spacecraft to orbit a moon other than our own – Jupiter’s largest moon, Ganymede,” Coustenis said. “After two flybys of Europa and 21 flybys of Callisto, the mission will conclude with a dedicated nine-month orbital tour around Ganymede during which the spacecraft will perform detailed surveys of this moon and its surroundings.”
The spacecraft will also perform new in-depth studies of Jupiter’s atmosphere and magnetosphere and their relationship to the planet’s moons to help understand the dynamics of the system and its evolution.
Learn more: Astronomers catch water spurting plumes on Europa, Jupiter’s icy moon
The oceans below the surface of icy moons
(Illustration credit: Shutterstock/Jurik Peter)
Although they are outside the Goldilocks area – which refers to an ideal distance from a star that would keep water in liquid form – Ganymede, Europa and Callisto should all harbor oceans of liquid water below their surface.
This is partly due to the continuous stretching and squeezing of the moons, in relation to their strong tidal interaction with Jupiter. It is believed that the friction created by this interaction generates enough heat to keep the water below the surface in liquid form.
Besides, radioactive decay heavy elements in the moons’ cores can provide a source of heat.
“The mission will characterize the three moons both as planetary objects, highlighting their unique characteristics, and as possible habitats. [by] study their astrobiological potential,” adds Coustenis.
The trip will also explore Jupiter’s complex environment and study its larger system as an archetype of gas giants across the universe, including other exoplanetary systems.
Learn more: There are probably four rocky planets in the habitable zones of stars near the Sun
Specialized tools on the Jupiter rocket
Once it reaches the system, JUICE will perform a number of measurements with instruments specially designed to deal with intense radiation exposure.
The JUICE payload consists of 10 advanced technologies.
These include spectral imaging tools capable of reading ultraviolet and sub-millimeter wavelengths and a radar sounder to explore the surface and subsurface of the moons.
The overall mission was an international collaboration, with several people from different areas of expertise and countries coming together to work on a common goal.
Simultaneous Europa missions
(Credit: Will hilton-kent/Shutterstock)
The company also straddles the next NASA launch Mission Europa Clipperdesigned to place a radiation-tolerant reconnaissance spacecraft into Europa’s orbit.
Together, these efforts are intended to provide groundbreaking new insights into the Jovian system, which should help answer a variety of burning questions from the scientific community.
The discovery of large masses of liquid water, organic matter and energy sources in any or all of the three Galilean icy moons could demonstrate that habitable conditions exist farther from the sun than traditional models of the “habitable zone” of our solar system have suggested.
“This will help us search for signs of life in the right environments during future explorations,” says Coustenis.
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