European spacecraft rockets toward Jupiter and its icy moons

Cayenne, French Guiana April 14 (BNA): A European spacecraft launched Friday on a decade-long mission to explore Jupiter and three of its icy moons that could have buried oceans.

The flight began with a morning takeoff by a European Ariane rocket from French Guiana in South America. Stefan Israel, CEO of Arianespace, called it “an absolutely perfect launch.”

But there were some tense minutes after that as controllers waited for signals from the spacecraft about an hour into flight, the Associated Press (AP) reported.

When the contact was confirmed, Bruno Souza of the European Space Agency announced from Mission Control in Germany: “The spacecraft is alive!”

Nicknamed Juice, the robotic explorer will take eight years to reach Jupiter, where it will not only capture the largest planet in the solar system but also Europa, Callisto, and Ganymede. The three ice-covered moons are believed to harbor underground oceans, where marine life could exist.

Then in the most impressive feat of all, Juice will attempt to enter orbit around Ganymede: no spacecraft has ever orbited a moon other than our own.

With so many moons—at last count 95—astronomers consider Jupiter to be its own little solar system, with missions like Juice long overdue.

“We’re not going to detect life with Juice,” confirmed Olivier Weetas, ESA project scientist.

But learning more about moons and their possible seas will bring scientists closer to answering the “where else” question. “This will really be the most interesting aspect of the mission,” he said.

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The juice takes a long, circular route to Jupiter, covering 4 billion miles (6.6 billion km).

It will swoop 125 miles (200 km) from Callisto and 250 miles (400 km) from Europa and Ganymede, completing 35 flybys as it circles Jupiter. Then it will hit the brakes to get around Ganymede, the primary target of the €1.6 billion (about $1.8 billion) mission.

Not only is Ganymede the largest moon in the solar system – it eclipses Mercury – but it has a magnetic field of its own with dazzling aurorae at the poles.

Even more tempting, the underground ocean is believed to hold more water than the land. As do Europa and reported geysers, and badly smashed Callisto, a potential destination for humans given its distance from Jupiter’s debilitating radiation belts, according to Scott Sheppard of the Carnegie Endowment, who was not involved with the JUICE mission.

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

The spacecraft, about the size of a minibus, won’t reach Jupiter until 2031, relying on gravitational flybys with the help of Earth and the Moon, as well as Venus.

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

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The King of Belgium, Prince Gabriel and a pair of astronauts – Frenchman Thomas Pesquet and German Matthias Maurer – were among the spectators in French Guiana. Thursday’s launch attempt was canceled due to a lightning threat.

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

Europa is particularly attractive to scientists looking for signs of life beyond Earth. However, Juicy will keep its encounters with Europa to a minimum, due to the intense radiation there near Jupiter.

Juice sensitive electronics are coated with lead for radiation protection. 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). The solar panels extend 88 feet (27 meters) in the direction they tend to absorb the most sunlight away from the sun.

Late next year, NASA will send a much more protected spacecraft to Jupiter, the long-awaited Europa Clipper, which will beat Juice to Jupiter by more than a year because it will launch on SpaceX’s more powerful rocket. The two spacecraft will collaborate to study Europa like never before.

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

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Europe provided nine of Juice’s scientific instruments, with NASA providing only one.

If Juice confirms that subterranean oceans are conducive to past or present life, Weetas said the next step would be to send a drill to break through ice crusts and perhaps even a submarine.

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


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