European JUICE spacecraft ready to explore Jupiter’s icy moons

The European spacecraft JUICE is poised to embark on an eight-year odyssey through the solar system to find out if the oceans hidden beneath the surface of Jupiter’s icy moons have the potential for extraterrestrial life.

For now, Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) is in the white room of its manufacturer Airbus in the southwestern French city of Toulouse. But his days on this planet are numbered.

Soon, the spacecraft will be placed in a container with its wings carefully folded before traveling to Europe’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana off the coast of South America in early February.

From there in April, one of the most ambitious space missions in European history is due to begin.

The scientists and engineers in Toulouse, who have spent years working on the project, are clearly thrilled to say goodbye to what they call “the beast”.

They finally unveiled the six-ton ​​spacecraft to reporters on Friday – showing off 10 scientific instruments, a 2.5-meter (eight-foot) diameter antenna to communicate with Earth, and a vast array of solar panels that still need to be tested one last time.

As a farewell gift, a commemorative plaque was installed on the back of the spacecraft in tribute to the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei, who first spotted Jupiter and its largest moons in 1610.

Volcanic Io and its icy siblings Europa, Ganymede and Callisto were “the first moons discovered outside our own,” said Cyril Cavel, Airbus project manager at JUICE.

Cavel had with him a copy of Galileo’s “Sidereus Nuncius”, the first treatise based on telescope observations.

More than 400 years later, JUICE will give a much clearer view of Europa, Ganymede and Callisto before becoming the first spacecraft to orbit one of Jupiter’s moons.

– The earth is “like a catapult” –

It will be the first European space mission to venture into the outer solar system, which begins beyond Mars.

Jupiter is more than 600 million kilometers (370 million miles) from Earth, and JUICE will take a circular path ahead of its scheduled arrival in July 2031.

The spacecraft will fly a total of two billion kilometers, using the gravity of Earth and then Venus along the way.

“It’s like a catapult that gives us momentum to Jupiter,” said Nicolas Altobelli, JUICE project scientist at the European Space Agency (ESA).

The extra travel time will allow JUICE’s solar panels – which cover an area of ​​85 square meters, the largest ever built for an interplanetary spacecraft – to absorb as much energy as possible.

He will need this power when he crosses the “frost line” between Mars and Jupiter, when the temperature can drop to minus 220 degrees Celsius.

Then JUICE will have to carefully apply the brakes so that it can glide into Jupiter’s orbit. He is alone in this part.

“We will follow the maneuver from Earth without being able to do anything – if it fails, the mission will be lost,” Cavel said.

From Jupiter’s orbit, the satellite will make 35 flybys of Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. It will then enter the orbit of Ganymede, the largest of the three, before finally falling to its surface.

– Don’t look for the “big fish” –

JUICE’s ice-penetrating cameras, sensors, spectrometers and radars will study the moons to determine whether they may be habitable in the past or present.

He will not be looking at the frozen surface of the moons, but 10-15 kilometers below, where huge liquid oceans flow.

This extreme environment can be home to bacteria and single-celled organisms.

But the mission will not be able to detect “big fish or creatures,” said ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher.

Instead, it will look for conditions capable of supporting life, including liquid water and a source of energy that may come from the tidal effect that Jupiter’s gravity exerts on its moons.

Measuring the magnetic signals could determine if water on Ganymede is in contact with its rocky core, which would allow the chemical elements necessary for life to “dissolve in the water,” Altobelli said.

NASA’s Clipper mission is planned to launch in 2024 and will aim to explore Europe.

If one of the moons turns out to be a particularly good candidate for life, the “logical next step” would be to send a spacecraft to land on the surface, Cavel said.

He added that he was touched by the thought that JUICE would “end its life on the surface of Ganymede.”

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