June 16, 2024

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The JUICE spacecraft has been launched to investigate the habitability of Jupiter’s icy moons

The JUICE spacecraft has been launched to investigate the habitability of Jupiter’s icy moons

The European Space Agency (ESA) successfully launched its JUICE spacecraft to study Jupiter’s icy moons on Friday, April 14. The Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer mission will visit three of Jupiter’s largest moons – Europa, Ganymede and Callisto – to check if they could be habitable, a question that has been debated among astronomers since the first evidence of subterranean oceans appeared on these moons. It was seen by the Galileo mission in the 1990s.

JUICE launched at 8:14 a.m. ET from the European Spaceport in French Guiana, loaded with an Ariane 5 rocket. The launch was delayed from its original launch date of April 13 due to weather conditions, but today the skies were clear for takeoff.

The spacecraft separated from the rocket shortly after liftoff, which caused the signal to contact Earth at 9:04 am. It then deployed its large solar array, which spread out to its full 27-meter size, with full deployment confirmed at 9:33 am. With that, the spacecraft begins its eight-year journey to the Jupiter system.

The mission is to check whether Jupiter’s moons could be habitable

The launch must take place within a window as small as one second in order to work with spacecraft complex path. The spacecraft will begin its journey around Earth’s orbit, flying over the Earth and Moon, in August 2024. This will be the first time that a spacecraft has performed a maneuver called Lunar Earth Gravity Assist (LEGA), which involves first flying past the Moon and then passing Earth after just a day and a half. This will give the spacecraft a boost, but it requires launching at a specific time.

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“We have to launch on the second stage in order to get the right trajectory towards the first orbit around the sun that will allow us to return to Earth,” explained ESA’s payload system engineer Alessandro Atzi at a pre-launch briefing.

The spacecraft will continue to orbit toward the inner solar system, flying past Venus in 2025 before returning to Earth’s orbit for two more trips in 2026 and 2029. After that, it will be able to exit toward Jupiter, reaching the Jupiter system in 2031.

This will be the first time a spacecraft has performed a maneuver called Earth-Lunar Gravity Assist

This flight is designed to conserve as much fuel as possible, as the spacecraft will need its fuel reserves to perform maneuvers at Jupiter. Once JUICE reaches Jupiter, it will perform a total of 35 flybys of Europa, Ganymede and Callisto, the three icy moons.

At this point, the spacecraft will be so far from the sun that its huge solar panels, measuring 85 square meters, will produce a few hundred watts of power, or enough to power a microwave. Its instruments must be designed to operate while using very little energy as well as to deal with Jupiter’s harsh radiation environment.

The 10 onboard instruments include remote sensing instruments such as a camera and spectrograph to detect distant targets as well as in situ instruments such as a magnetometer and a radio and plasma wave instrument to measure the immediate environment around the spacecraft. Another onboard experiment, called the Planetary Radio Interferometry and Doppler Experiment, or PRIDE, will test whether radio telescopes on Earth can be used to pinpoint the spacecraft’s exact location.

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The probe will reach the Jupiter system in 2031

These instruments will be used to explore Jupiter’s moons, with a particular focus on Ganymede. Ganymede is unusual in that it is the largest moon in the solar system and the only moon known to produce its own magnetic field. This magnetic field lies within Jupiter’s strong magnetic field, and the two interact to produce strong aurorae around the moon. Ganymede’s surface is also important because it varies in age, with younger, smoother terrain and regions with much older terrain, which can help scientists understand how the Jupiter system has evolved over billions of years.

The most interesting feature of Ganymede, though, is that, like Europa and Callisto, it is believed to have a liquid water ocean under a crust of ice several miles thick. Evidence for this comes from the Galileo mission, which found disturbances in Jupiter’s magnetic field near Europa that indicate a subsurface ocean, plumes of water pouring across the surface detected by Hubble, and detections of water vapor in Europa’s atmosphere made with ground-based telescopes. .

Since liquid water is necessary for almost all forms of life, this has made these moons some of the best spots in the solar system to search for potentially habitable environments. The JUICE spacecraft will not look for evidence of direct life, but will look for indications that moons could host life by looking for biosignatures such as the presence of basic biological elements such as carbon and oxygen.

To assess whether these environments are truly habitable, scientists need to look at the bigger picture of the Jupiter system as a whole. “To understand the habitability question, we need to explore the Jupiter system globally — so to study Jupiter, its atmosphere, its weather, its strong rotating magnetic field, its volcanic moon Io, and the other moons in the system, and how to study all of these objects,” explained Olivier Weetas, project scientist. JUICE, in Science Brief.”So Jupiter is really a miniature solar system.”

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“To understand the question of habitability, we need to explore the Jupiter system globally.”

Studying this system can help us learn about the entire solar system as well as investigate whether these distant worlds could host life. “Today we’ve sent a suite of groundbreaking science instruments on a journey to Jupiter’s moons that will give us an incredible close-up view that previous generations could not have imagined,” said Carol Mundell, Director of Science at the European Space Agency. a permit.

“The treasure trove of data that ESA Juice will provide will enable the worldwide scientific community to search for and uncover the mysteries of the Jovian system, probing the nature and habitability of the oceans on other worlds and answering questions that future generations of scientists have yet to ask.”