Spacecraft Starts Long Trip to Explore Jupiter's Moons

Mission seeks to determine whether underground oceans could support life
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Apr 14, 2023 2:40 PM CDT
Spacecraft Starts Long Trip to Explore Jupiter's Moons
In this image provided by the European Space Agency, an Ariane rocket carrying the robotic explorer Juice takes off from Europe's Spaceport in French Guiana, on Friday.   (ESA via AP)

A European spacecraft rocketed away Friday on a decadelong quest to explore Jupiter and three of its icy moons that could hold buried oceans. The journey began with a perfect liftoff by the Ariane rocket from French Guiana on the coast of South America. But there were tense minutes later as controllers awaited signals from the spacecraft, the AP reports. When contact finally was confirmed close to an hour into the flight, Mission Control in Germany declared: "The spacecraft is alive!" It will take the robotic explorer, dubbed Juice, eight years to reach Jupiter, where it will scope out not only the solar system's biggest planet but also Europa, Callisto, and Ganymede. The moons are believed to harbor underground oceans, where sea life could exist.

Then in perhaps the most impressive feat of all, Juice will attempt to go into orbit around Ganymede: No spacecraft has ever orbited a moon other than Earth's. With it having so many moons—at last count 95—astronomers consider Jupiter a mini solar system of its own. They consider missions like Juice's long overdue. "This is a mission that is answering questions of science that are burning to all of us,” said Josef Aschbacher, European Space Agency’s director general, after the launch. "Of course, one of these questions is: Is there life out there?" Although it can't find life, "Juice will be identifying the habitability of these icy moons," he added.

The spacecraft is taking a roundabout route to Jupiter covering 4 billion miles. It will swoop within 125 miles of Callisto and 250 miles of Europa and Ganymede, completing 35 flybys while circling Jupiter. Then it will hit the brakes to orbit Ganymede, the primary target of the nearly $1.8 billion mission. Ganymede is not only the solar system's largest moon—it surpasses Mercury—but it has its own magnetic field with dazzling auroras at the poles. Even more enticing, per the AP, it's thought to have an underground ocean holding more water than Earth does. The spacecraft, about the size of a small bus, won't reach Jupiter until 2031.

(More Jupiter stories.)

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