European spacecraft rockets toward Jupiter and its icy moons

A European spacecraft launched on Friday in a decade-long quest to explore Jupiter and its three icy moons that could bury oceans.

The journey began with a morning liftoff on a European Ariane rocket from French Guiana, South America. Arianespace chief executive Stephane Israel called it an “absolutely flawless launch”.

But some tension arose a few minutes later, as controllers waited for a signal from the spacecraft after flying for nearly an hour.

After confirming the contact, Bruno Souza of the European Space Agency declared at Mission Control in Germany: “The spacecraft is alive!”

The robotic explorer, dubbed Juice, will take eight years to reach Jupiter, where it will explore not only the solar system’s largest planet, but also Europa, Callisto and Ganymede. The three ice-covered moons are believed to hide subsurface oceans, where marine life may reside.

Then, and perhaps the most impressive feat of all, Juice will attempt to enter orbit around Ganymede: No spacecraft has yet orbited any moon other than our own.

With so many moons — 95 at the end — astronomers think Jupiter is a mini solar system of its own, missions like Juice are long overdue.

“We’re not going to use Juice to detect life,” emphasizes Olivier Witasse, a project scientist at the European Space Agency.

But learning more about the moon and its potential ocean will bring scientists closer to answering the question of whether life exists elsewhere. “That’s going to be really the most interesting aspect of this mission,” he said.

Juice is on a long, circuitous route to Jupiter, covering 4 billion miles (6.6 billion kilometers)

It will swoop within 125 miles (200 kilometers) of Callisto and 250 miles (400 kilometers) of Europa and Ganymede, completing 35 flybys while orbiting Jupiter. It will then brake to Ganymede’s orbit, the main target of the 1.6 billion euro (nearly $1.8 billion) mission.

Not only is Ganymede the solar system’s largest moon — it surpasses Mercury — but it also has its own magnetic field and bright auroras at its poles.

Even more tantalizing, it is thought to have more subsurface oceans than Earth. The same is true for Europa, with its reported geysers and cratered Callisto, given Callisto’s destructive radiation belts with Jupiter, says Scott Sheppard of the Carnegie Institution, who was not involved with the Juice mission. distance, it is a potential destination for humans.

“The ocean worlds in our solar system are the most likely to host life, so these large moons of Jupiter are prime candidates for the search,” said Sheppard, a moon hunter who helped discover more than 100 moons in the outer solar system .

The spacecraft, about the size of a small bus, won’t reach Jupiter until 2031, relying on gravity-assisted flybys of Earth and our moon, as well as Venus.

“These things take time — they change our world,” said Bill Nye, CEO of The Planetary Society. The California-based space advocacy group organized a virtual viewing party for the launch.

Belgium’s King Philippe and Prince Gabriel were among the audience in French Guiana, along with a pair of astronauts – France’s Thomas Pesquet and Germany’s Mathias Maurer. Thursday’s launch attempt failed due to a lightning threat.

Juice — short for Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer — will spend three years buzzing around Callisto, Europa and Ganymede. The spacecraft will attempt to enter orbit around Ganymede in late 2034, nearly a year before flight controllers send it to the moon, before crashing in 2035, if there is enough fuel left.

Europa is particularly attractive to scientists looking for signs of life beyond Earth. However, due to the intense radiation so close to Jupiter, Juice will minimize its encounter with Europa.

Juice’s sensitive electronics are encased in lead to protect against radiation. The 14,000-pound (6,350-kilogram) spacecraft is also wrapped in thermal blankets — temperatures near Jupiter hover around minus 380 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 230 degrees Celsius). Its solar panels stretch 88 feet (27 meters) from end to end, absorbing as much sunlight as possible, away from the sun.

Later next year, NASA will send a more heavily shielded spacecraft to Jupiter, the long-awaited Europa Clipper, which will arrive at Jupiter more than a year before Juice because it will be launched using SpaceX’s more powerful rocket. . The two spacecraft will collaborate to study Europa in an unprecedented way.

NASA has long dominated the exploration of Jupiter, starting with the twin Pioneer flybys in the 1970s and then Voyager. Only one spacecraft is still buzzing around Jupiter: NASA’s Juno, which just recorded its 50th orbit since 2016.

Europe provided Juice with nine scientific instruments, while NASA provided just one.

If Juice proves that subsurface oceans are conducive to past or present life, Witasse said the next step would be to launch drills through the ice shell, and possibly even submarines.

“We had to be creative,” he said. “We can still think of it as science fiction, but sometimes science fiction can join reality.”

—Marcia Dunn, Associated Press

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