(CNN) The European Space Agency is about to send a spacecraft to explore Jupiter and three of its largest and most intriguing moons.
The Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer, or Juice, mission is set to launch Thursday at 8:15 a.m. ET aboard an Ariane 5 rocket from Europe’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. Watch the launch live on the ESA website or YouTube channel.
After launch, the spacecraft will separate from the Ariane 5 launch vehicle approximately 28 minutes later. Over the course of 17 days, Juice will deploy its solar panels, antennas and other instruments, followed by three months of instrument testing and preparation.
Juice will take eight years to reach Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system. During its long cruise, the spacecraft will use gravitational slingshots as it flies past Earth, our moon and Venus to aid in travel.
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Once Juice arrives at Jupiter in July 2031, the spacecraft will spend about three and a half years orbiting the gas giant and performing flybys of three of its moons: Ganymede, Callisto and Europa. Towards the end of the mission, Juice will focus solely on orbiting Ganymede, making it the first spacecraft to orbit a moon in the outer solar system.
Ganymede, Callisto, and Europa are ice-covered worlds that may contain potentially habitable subterranean oceans.
Meanwhile, NASA’s Europa Clipper mission, launched in 2024, is expected to reach Jupiter in April 2030 and perform nearly 50 flybys of Europa, eventually reaching just 25 kilometers above the moon’s surface.
Together, the two missions could reveal some of the greatest mysteries of Jupiter and its moons.
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Exploration of Jupiter began with NASA’s Pioneer and Voyager missions in the 1970s, followed by dedicated Jupiter missions like Galileo and the Juno spacecraft. Juno has been orbiting Jupiter and has been flying near some of its moons since 2016.
The Juice mission has five main goals, including using its powerful suite of 10 instruments to characterize the three icy moons and determine if they harbor oceans, find out what makes Ganymede so unique, and determine if the moons are potentially habitable for life. .
Planetary scientists want to know how deep the oceans are, whether they contain salt or fresh water, and how that water interacts with the ice shell of each moon. Ganymede, Callisto and Europa also have different surfaces. The juice could reveal what kind of activity made some of them dark and cratered or paler and grooved.
Ganymede is the largest moon in the solar system, larger than Pluto and Mercury, and it is the only one with a magnetic field similar to Earth’s. Juice’s instruments can reveal the moon’s rotation, gravity, shape, interior structure, composition, and peer through its icy crust using radar.
Juice will also perform a detailed analysis of Jupiter to determine how the complex magnetic and radiative environment around this massive planet has shaped its moons, as well as how Jupiter formed in the first place. Understanding more of Jupiter’s origin story can help scientists apply these findings to Jupiter-like planets found outside our solar system.
Jupiter’s magnetic field is 20 times stronger than Earth’s and it has a harsh radiation environment, both of which impact its moons. The Juice mission was designed to unravel what happens when Jupiter interacts with its moons, including auroras, hotspots, radio emissions and charged particle waves.
The potential of life
Although all three moons are encased in thick shells of ice, interior heating could be taking place at the core of each moon – and this heat could make the interior oceans possible habitats for past or existing life.
Juice can search the moons for evidence of the building blocks of life, including things like carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, iron, and magnesium.
Previous missions like Galileo and Cassini, which have visited Saturn and its moons, have confirmed that liquid water can be found on planets and moons far from the sun – and that water is likely to exist under the surface.
“I think Juice is confirmation that our understanding of where to look for potential habitability has changed over the last 20 years,” said Michele Dougherty, Royal Society Research Professor at Imperial College London and main researcher of Juice’s magnetometer.
Life as we understand it on Earth requires liquid water, a heat source and organic matter – “and then you need those first three ingredients to be stable enough over a long enough period that something can actually happen,” Dougherty said.
“With Juice, we want to confirm that there is liquid water in these moons, confirm their heat sources. Other instruments will also be able to remotely detect if there is organic matter on the surface. And so he puts all those ingredients together,” she added. said.
Juice’s truck-sized spacecraft was designed to survive a long journey to Jupiter – and it must survive the extremes of the gas giant’s environment once it arrives. Two cross-shaped solar panels will provide power to the spacecraft and lead-lined vaults will protect its most sensitive electronic components.
The ESA-led mission includes contributions from NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. Testing and modeling Jupiter’s radiation belts has allowed engineers to prepare for what Juice will encounter.
“A key achievement of this model for us was to show that what at first seemed like a dangerous place was not completely out of reach,” Juice spacecraft and system manager Christian Erd said in a statement. . “About three and a half years at Jupiter will involve the equivalent radiation exposure of a telecommunications satellite in geostationary Earth orbit for 20 years – something we have a lot of experience managing.”
In order to help Juice survive, his trajectory was designed to fly over Callisto 21 times but only pass Europa twice. Europa is the closest to Jupiter and sits well within its radiant halo. Just two orbits of the moon will cause the spacecraft to experience one-third of its overall radiation exposure.
Some of Juice’s instruments are shielded, while others will be exposed to the elements to probe the atmospheres of Jupiter and its moons. Multiple imagers and sensors will capture and return data on different wavelengths of light.
Considering the possible distance between the spacecraft and Earth, it will take 45 minutes to send a one-way signal to Juice. But that’s nothing compared to the years of waiting for Juice to arrive on Jupiter.
Scientists are already anticipating the unique data Juice will return.
“I think the most critical moment is the first flyby we have of Ganymede,” Dougherty said. “The first one or two flybys is when we’re going to confirm the existence of an ocean.”
CNN’s Katie Hunt contributed reporting.
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