European Space Agency mission to Jupiter’s moons to determine whether there is a probability of life

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The European Space Agency (ESA) is embarking on one of its most ambitious missions to date, with the launch of a satellite set to journey towards the planet Jupiter.

Departing from Earth on Thursday, the satellite will embark on an eight-year expedition to reach the largest moons of Jupiter – Callisto, Europa, and Ganymede.

Scientific evidence suggests that these icy moons could potentially harbor vast oceans of liquid water beneath their surfaces. The ESA mission aims to investigate whether these moons possess the necessary conditions to support life.

This groundbreaking endeavor will involve in-depth research and analysis to unlock the mysteries of these distant worlds and shed light on the possibility of life beyond Earth.

The ambitious project, known as the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (Juice), aims to investigate the potential for life on Jupiter’s moons, though it will not be sending back pictures of alien fish. Rather, Juice will focus on determining whether the hidden oceans beneath the icy surfaces of Jupiter’s moons could support simple microbial organisms.

Professor Carole Mundell, the Director of Science at ESA, explains that this is not a far-fetched concept, as microbial life has been found in extreme environments on Earth, such as high acidity, high radioactivity, low temperature, and high temperature environments.

She further elaborates that even the volcanic vents at the bottom of Earth’s oceans resemble alien worlds, and if similar conditions are present on Jupiter’s moons, microbial life could potentially exist there as well. Juice aims to study these conditions in-depth to understand the possibility of life beyond Earth.

This mission represents a significant step in humanity’s quest to uncover the mysteries of our universe and understand the potential for life elsewhere in the cosmos.

By studying Jupiter’s moons, Juice could provide valuable insights into the habitability of icy worlds and broaden our understanding of the potential diversity of life in the universe.

The Juice mission, with a budget of €1.6 billion (£1.4 billion; $1.7 billion), is scheduled to launch on an Ariane-5 rocket from Kourou, French Guiana, at 09:15 local time (13:15 BST). However, the Ariane rocket alone does not possess sufficient energy to send Juice directly to Jupiter within a feasible timeframe.

Instead, the spacecraft will follow a trajectory around the inner Solar System, utilizing a series of flybys of Venus and Earth to gain gravitational slingshot boosts, propelling it towards its intended destination.

The anticipated arrival of Juice in the Jovian system is expected in July 2031. This complex trajectory will enable the spacecraft to reach Jupiter and its moons while maximizing fuel efficiency and ensuring a successful mission.


Juice’s mission includes 35 close passes of Jupiter’s moons, with occasions where it will approach as close as 400km to their surfaces, before ultimately settling into orbit around Ganymede.

Equipped with a total of 10 instruments, Juice is well-equipped to conduct in-depth scientific investigations.

Among the instruments on board are various cameras, particle detectors, a radar for mapping sub-surface features, and even a lidar for creating 3D maps of surface terrain. However, one of the most influential instruments is the magnetometer provided by the UK, built by Imperial College London.

This magnetometer will provide crucial data on the properties of the hidden oceans of the moons. In particular, the data gathered at Ganymede is expected to be highly detailed.

Professor Michele Dougherty, the Principal Investigator for Imperial’s magnetometer, explains that the instrument will help determine the depth of the oceans, their salt content, the thickness of the crust above the ocean, and whether the ocean is in contact with the rocky mantle.

This information will provide insights into the interior structure of the moon. Additionally, observations from other instruments studying the moon’s surface will help determine if there is organic material present.

Juice’s sophisticated instrumentation and scientific investigations will significantly contribute to our understanding of Jupiter’s moons and their potential habitability, paving the way for groundbreaking discoveries in planetary science.

Based on what we have learned from Earth, the four essential requirements for life are liquid water, nutrients, an energy source, and a stable timeframe for biological processes to take place.

While Mars has been considered a potential candidate for extraterrestrial life, particularly in its past history, astrobiologists are increasingly drawn to the ice-covered moons of Jupiter and Saturn.

The moons of Jupiter and Saturn, such as Callisto, Europa, Ganymede, and Enceladus, have caught the attention of astrobiologists due to the presence of vast oceans of liquid water beneath their icy surfaces.

These hidden oceans are believed to contain more than twice the amount of water found on Earth, raising the possibility of habitable environments for life forms.

Additionally, recent discoveries of geysers erupting from the surface of some of these moons, like Enceladus, spewing out water vapor and other organic materials, have further fueled interest among astrobiologists.

These geysers could potentially provide access to the subsurface oceans, allowing for direct sampling and analysis of the moon’s potential habitability.

The combination of liquid water, nutrients from possible geothermal activity, and energy sources from tidal forces generated by the gravitational pull of the gas giants, make these icy moons compelling targets for astrobiological research.

Studying these moons could provide valuable insights into the potential for life beyond Earth and shed light on the origins, evolution, and distribution of life in the Universe.

As our understanding of the requirements for life expands, and with advancements in space exploration technology, the ice-covered moons of Jupiter and Saturn are becoming increasingly intriguing destinations for astrobiologists to explore in the search for extraterrestrial life.

Despite being in the cold and distant outer reaches of the Solar System, the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn may have the potential to satisfy the four essential inputs for life, including an energy source.

While they may not receive light and warmth from a star, the constant gravitational forces exerted by the giant planets on these moons create flexure, which can keep water in liquid form and drive volcanic vent systems on the ocean floors.

This flexure could provide the necessary energy to support life, similar to how geothermal activity on Earth’s ocean floors supports unique ecosystems. Some scientists even hypothesize that such volcanic vent systems could have been the origin of life on Earth.

This makes moons like Europa, in particular, a compelling candidate for hosting life, as the chances of finding extant life there today may be higher than on Mars.

Astrobiologists, like Prof Lewis Dartnell from the University of Westminster, believe that Europa could potentially harbor life that is alive and thriving today.

This highlights the growing interest in the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn as promising targets for the search for extraterrestrial life, with the potential to provide valuable insights into the possibilities of life beyond Earth.

The United States is planning to launch its companion mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, called Clipper, next year. Clipper will focus on Europa and will make 50 flybys, some as close as 25km to the moon’s surface.

This mission is part of a step-by-step approach to planetary exploration, similar to how missions have progressed at Mars, with orbiters followed by landers and sample return missions.

While investigations at Jupiter’s and Saturn’s moons are not as advanced in this sequence, there is a vision for future missions later in this century that could potentially land on these intriguing outer Solar System bodies.

These missions could involve drilling through the icy crusts of these moons to sample the waters below and search for evidence of life.

Astronomer Royal, Prof Sir Martin Rees, suggests that if evidence of life is found on the moons of Saturn or Jupiter, it would likely be of independent origin, meaning that life may have originated separately on these moons rather than being transported from elsewhere.

This underscores the significance of exploring these icy moons and the potential for groundbreaking discoveries about the existence of life beyond Earth.

Indeed, the discovery of life on the moons of Saturn or Jupiter, if it were to happen, would be a momentous message that could potentially transform our understanding of the Universe.

It would imply that the origin of life may not be a rare occurrence but rather a common phenomenon, with the possibility of life existing in numerous places within our own galaxy.

Such a discovery would fundamentally change the way we view the cosmos and our place within it. It would open up new possibilities and questions about the nature of life, its resilience, and its potential for existence in various environments.

The implications would be profound, with profound implications for astrobiology, planetary science, and our understanding of the potential for life beyond Earth.

Exploring the icy moons of Saturn and Jupiter, and investigating the potential for life beyond our planet, represents an exciting frontier in our quest to understand the origin and prevalence of life in the Universe.

It underscores the significance of space exploration and the continued search for extraterrestrial life, which could revolutionize our understanding of the cosmos and our place in it.

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