Searching Life On Jupiter's Icy Moons With New Exploration Mission

First Posted: Feb 21, 2013 02:47 PM EST

Jupiter’s icy moons will be explored in more detail by Europe’s next large science mission, JUICE, which will carry a total of 11 scientific instruments to study both the gas giant planet and its large ocean-bearing moons, as finalized and announced by ESA today.

The exploration spacecraft is scheduled to launch in 2022 on an Ariane 5 and arrive at Jupiter in 2030, where it is set to spend a minimum of three years making detailed observations.

Jupiter’s diverse Galilean moons – volcanic Io, icy Europa and rock-ice Ganymede and Callisto – make the jovian system a miniature Solar System in its own right.

With Europa, Ganymede and Callisto all thought to host internal oceans, the mission will study the moons as potential habitats for life, addressing two key themes of Cosmic Vision: what are the conditions for planet formation and the emergence of life, and how does the Solar System work?

JUICE, which will be the first Large-class mission in ESA’s Cosmic Vision 2015–2025 programme, will continuously observe Jupiter’s atmosphere and magnetosphere, and the interaction of the Galilean moons with the gas giant planet.

This will be accomplished by a set of instruments that includes cameras and spectrometers, a laser altimeter and an ice-penetrating radar. The mission will carry a magnetometer, plasma and particle monitors, and radio science hardware as well.

The instruments will be developed by scientific teams from 15 European countries, the US and Japan, through corresponding national funding.

“The selection of JUICE’s instruments is a key milestone in ESA’s flagship mission to the outer Solar System, which represents an unprecedented opportunity to showcase leading European technological and scientific expertise,” says Prof. Alvaro Giménez Cañete, an ESA director, in a statement.
“JUICE will give us better insight into how gas giants and their orbiting worlds form, and their potential for hosting life.”

The planned route of the spacecraft will first pass by Callisto, the most heavily cratered object in the Solar System, and will twice fly by Europa. JUICE will make the first measurements of the thickness of Europa’s icy crust and will identify candidate sites for future in situ exploration.

The spacecraft will finally enter orbit around Ganymede in 2032, where it will study the icy surface and internal structure of the moon, including its subsurface ocean.

Ganymede is the only moon in the Solar System known to generate its own magnetic field, and JUICE will observe the unique magnetic and plasma interactions with Jupiter’s magnetosphere in detail.

“Jupiter is the archetype for the giant planets of the Solar System and for many giant planets being found around other stars,” says Giménez.

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