Science

Ariane 5 ready to launch ESA’s JUICE mission to Jupiter

WASHINGTON — Europe’s first mission to Jupiter is ready for launch on Ariane 5’s penultimate flight on April 13.

The Ariane 5 rocket, carrying the European Space Agency’s Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer spacecraft, or JUICE, rolled out to the Kourou area in French Guiana on April 11. Liftoff is scheduled for 8:15 a.m. EST on April 13 in an instant launch window. .

The launch will begin a long journey for the six-ton ​​spacecraft. It will make several gravity-assisted flybys of Earth and Venus between August 2024 and January 2029 before arriving at Jupiter in mid-2031. Once in Jupiter, it will make 35 flybys of the large moons Europa, Ganymede and Callisto before going into orbit around Ganymede, the largest moon in the solar system.

“The main goal is to understand if there are habitable environments among these icy moons,” Olivier Witasse, JUICE project scientist at ESA, said during a briefing on April 6. “We will particularly characterize the oceans of liquid water that are found inside icy moons.”

JUICE will make these observations with a suite of 10 scientific instruments, one of which, an ultraviolet imaging spectrograph, is provided by NASA. Several other instruments include contributions from NASA, the Japanese space agency JAXA and the Israeli Space Agency.

JUICE will be joined by NASA’s Europa Clipper mission, slated for launch in October 2024 and arriving at Jupiter in 2030. This spacecraft will perform dozens of flybys of Europa to study the potential for life on this icy moon.

It will be “very fantastic” to have Europa Clipper and JUICE running at the same time in the Jovian system, Witasse said. “The two missions are very complementary,” with the potential for joint observations. One example is the planned flyby of Europa by the two spacecraft just four hours apart.

JUICE will focus more on Ganymede, entering orbit around the moon in late 2034 and remaining there until the end of the mission, currently scheduled for September 2035. That orbit will be at an altitude of 500 kilometers, but if enough remains of fuel on the spacecraft, he said the spacecraft could lower its orbit to 200 kilometers.

JUICE will eventually crash into the surface of Ganymede. “With Ganymede’s current knowledge, we can crash to the surface” without violating planetary protection guidelines to avoid harmful contamination. “We have shown that we cannot contaminate any subterranean ocean even if we crash on the surface.”

This is the sixth Ariane 5 flight to carry out ESA scientific missions. The rocket previously launched the XMM-Newton X-ray Observatory, the Comet Rosetta mission, the Herschel and Planck observatories, the BepiColombo mission to Mercury, and most recently the James Webb Space Telescope, a NASA-led mission with European contributions.

Preparations for the launch of JUICE were similar to those for Ariane 5 missions, except for increased cleanliness requirements, according to Véronique Loisel, JUICE project director at Arianespace. This is similar to imaging satellite launches, she said, but with additional contamination monitoring also used for the JWST launch.

The launch is also the penultimate flight of Ariane 5. The vehicle is expected to make its final launch at the end of June, carrying the Syracuse 4B military communications satellite for France and the Heinrich Hertz communications satellite for the German government.

“Is it routine? Never. Does it have any special meaning? Yes,” Ruedeger Albat, Ariane 5 program manager at ESA, said of the rocket’s latest launches. For these final launches, there is an enhanced monitoring and qualification verification program, he said, but otherwise operations are being kept as close to normal as possible.

He likened those last launches to an airline pilot’s last flight before retirement. “It will fly with great care but stick to nominal operations as much as possible.”

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