The European spacecraft that was invented to explore Jupiter’s icy moons has left the planet earth.

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 European Space Agency: Launch mission to explore Jupiter’s ice moons. image: ESA

The Juice satellite soared into the sky atop an Ariane-5 rocket, launched from the Kourou spaceport in French Guiana.

The atmosphere was filled with joy, relief, and celebratory hugs as scientists, officials, and VIPs watched with anticipation, and were subsequently informed of the successful orbit of the satellite.

The European Space Agency’s (ESA) Juice project had experienced a delay due to weather conditions during the previous launch attempt on Thursday, making this second attempt a fortunate success.

Shortly after separating from the rocket, Juice made contact with mission control, confirming a significant milestone: the deployment of its massive solar array system, spanning an impressive 90 square meters (98 square yards).

“We have a mission, and we’re headed to Jupiter! Loaded with questions, Juice is coming full throttle. Get ready for it, Jupiter!” declared Andrea Accomazzo, the operations director at Esa’s mission control in Darmstadt, Germany, with excitement and anticipation.

Dr. Josef Aschbacher, the agency’s director general, also expressed his pride as he acknowledged that the €1.6 billion (£1.4 billion; $1.7 billion) mission had safely commenced.

“However, we must remain mindful that there’s still a long journey ahead,” he cautioned. “We need to thoroughly test all our instruments to ensure they function as expected, and then, of course, reach our destination at Jupiter. But with this successful step, we have made significant progress towards our goal.”

The Juice spacecraft carries 10 instruments to study Jupiter’s moons image : ESA

The Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (Juice) is embarking on a mission to study the three major moons of Jupiter – Callisto, Ganymede, and Europa, which are believed to harbor vast reservoirs of liquid water.

Scientists are intrigued by the possibility that these moons may also be capable of hosting life.

Although Jupiter is located in the cold and distant outer reaches of the Solar System, receiving only a fraction of the sunlight that reaches Earth, the gravitational forces exerted by the gas giant on its moons create conditions that could potentially support simple ecosystems.

Similar to the environments found around volcanic vents on the ocean floors of Earth.

For instance, Europa is thought to possess a deep ocean that could be as much as 100 kilometers (62 miles) deep, hidden beneath its icy crust.

This ocean is estimated to be about ten times deeper than the deepest ocean on Earth, and it is believed to be in contact with a rocky floor. This creates an intriguing scenario for mixing and chemical processes that could be conducive to the emergence of life.

“In the case of Europa, it’s thought there’s a deep ocean, maybe 100km (62 miles) deep, underneath its ice crust,” said Prof Emma Bunce, a mission scientist from Leicester University, UK.

“That depth of ocean is 10 times that of the deepest ocean on Earth, and the ocean is in contact, we think, with a rocky floor. So that provides a scenario where there is mixing and some interesting chemistry,” she explained.

The Juice mission aims to uncover more about these fascinating moons and their potential for hosting life through its in-depth scientific investigations.

Due to the considerable distance of the Juice mission and the limitations of the Ariane rocket, the spacecraft will not be sent directly to its destination. Instead, the rocket will launch the spacecraft into a path around the inner Solar System.

A series of gravitational fly-bys of Venus and Earth will then propel the mission towards its intended destination.

The journey to study the icy moons of Jupiter – Callisto, Ganymede, and Europa – will cover a staggering 6.6 billion kilometers and last for 8.5 years.

The spacecraft is expected to arrive in the Jovian system in July 2031, after traveling through the vastness of space.

These icy moons were first discovered by the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei in 1610, using the newly-invented telescope at the time.

Galileo observed them as tiny dots orbiting around Jupiter. Another moon, Io, which is much smaller but covered in volcanoes, was also observed by Galileo.

The icy trio of moons, Callisto, Ganymede, and Europa, have diameters ranging from 4,800 kilometers to 5,300 kilometers, making them larger than Earth’s natural satellite, the Moon, which has a diameter of approximately 3,500 kilometers.

This provides a sense of scale for the impressive size and significance of these icy moons that Juice will study in detail during its mission.

Juice’s mission is focused on remote sensing of the Jupiter’s moons, which means it will fly over their surfaces and not land on them. The largest moon in the Solar System, Ganymede, is the ultimate target of the mission, and Juice will end its tour by going into orbit around Ganymede in 2034.

To study the moons, Juice will utilize a range of sophisticated instruments and sensors. Radar will be used to peer into the subsurface of the moons, while lidar, a laser measurement device, will create high-resolution 3D maps of their surfaces.

Magnetometers will investigate the complex electrical and magnetic environments of the moons, and other sensors will collect data on the particles that surround them.

Additionally, cameras onboard the spacecraft will capture countless images, providing valuable visual information.

Through these remote sensing techniques, Juice will gather a wealth of data and images, allowing scientists to better understand the composition, geology, and environment of Jupiter’s moons.

This information will contribute to our knowledge of the outer Solar System and shed light on the potential for habitability and the evolution of these intriguing icy worlds.

Volcanic vents on Earth’s ocean floor are a model for what could exist on these moons. image :SPL

Indeed, operating several hundred million kilometers away from Earth means that Juice will encounter dim light conditions.

To power its instruments and systems, the satellite will rely on its large solar wings, which are designed to maximize the collection of solar energy in the outer Solar System.

Despite their considerable size, Juice’s solar wings will only generate enough power to run the equivalent of a domestic microwave oven, producing approximately 850 watts.

This limited power supply underscores the need for careful energy management and efficiency in order to ensure that Juice’s scientific instruments and systems can operate effectively throughout its mission.

The mission team has carefully designed and optimized Juice’s power systems to ensure that it can meet its scientific objectives within the constraints of the available power.

This includes prioritizing power usage, managing power-intensive activities, and implementing energy-saving measures to maximize the scientific return of the mission while operating in the challenging and dimly lit environment of the outer Solar System.

You’re correct, the primary objective of the Juice mission is not to directly search for signs of life or alien fish on Jupiter’s moons, but rather to gather information about their potential habitability.

By studying the moons remotely using instruments such as radar, lidar, magnetometers, and cameras, Juice will collect data on their composition, structure, and environment to better understand their habitability.

The information gathered by Juice will provide valuable insights into the subsurface oceans of Callisto, Ganymede, and Europa, including their depth, composition, and potential interactions with the rocky mantle.

This information will help scientists assess the potential habitability of these moons and determine if they could support life as we know it or harbor the conditions necessary for life to originate and thrive.

Based on the data obtained from Juice and other missions, scientists are already considering future missions that could involve sending landers to these icy moons to further investigate their potential habitability.

However, drilling through the thick ice crust of these moons, which could be tens of kilometers thick, presents significant technical challenges due to the extreme conditions and distances involved.

Nevertheless, studying these icy worlds in more detail is an exciting prospect that could provide crucial insights into the potential for life beyond Earth.


Robots that dive beneath the ice of Antarctica are already in use. Image: ICEFIN/NASA/SCHMIDT/LAWRENCE

You’re correct, NASA is also planning a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa called Europa Clipper. Europa Clipper is scheduled to launch in the next year and is expected to arrive at Jupiter just before the Juice mission.

While Juice and Europa Clipper are separate missions led by different space agencies (Juice by the European Space Agency and Europa Clipper by NASA), they have similar objectives in studying Jupiter’s moons, particularly Europa.

Europa Clipper will focus its investigations on Europa, specifically studying its icy surface, subsurface ocean, and geology in detail.

It will carry a suite of scientific instruments, including cameras, spectrometers, and ice-penetrating radar, to collect data on Europa’s composition, structure, and environment.

The mission aims to characterize Europa’s habitability, including the thickness of its icy crust, the depth and composition of its subsurface ocean, and the potential for geologic activity.

Despite being separate missions, there is a collaborative effort between the teams working on Juice and Europa Clipper.

Both missions are expected to provide valuable data and insights into the potential habitability of Jupiter’s moons.

The data obtained from these missions will greatly contribute to our understanding of these icy worlds and their potential for hosting life. However, as with any space mission, the first priority is to ensure safe arrival and operation of the spacecraft before conducting the scientific investigations.

The American Clipper mission should launch in 2024 and focus on Europa. image:NASA/JPL-CALTECH/SWRI/MSSS

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