The European spacecraft JUICE is all set to embark on an eight-year journey through the solar system to see if the oceans hidden beneath the surface of Jupiter’s icy moons have the potential to host extraterrestrial life.
Right now, Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) is in a white room at its Airbus factory in Toulouse, southwestern France. But his days on this planet are numbered.
Soon, the spacecraft will be enclosed in a container, with the wings carefully folded, before traveling to the European Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana off the coast of South America in early February.
From there, one of the most ambitious European space missions ever is set to launch in April.
The scientists and engineers in Toulouse who have spent years working on the project are clearly emotional at the idea of saying goodbye to what they call “The Beast.”
They finally revealed the six-ton spacecraft to reporters on Friday — showing off 10 science instruments, a 2.5-meter (eight-foot) antenna for communicating with Earth, and a wide array of solar panels that still need to be tested one last time. .
As a farewell gift, a plaque was installed on the back of the spacecraft in honor of the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei, who was the first to discover Jupiter and its largest moon in 1610.
Volcanic Io and its icy siblings Europa, Ganymede and Callisto were “the first moons discovered outside of our country,” said Cyril Cavill, Airbus project manager at JUICE.
Cavell carried a copy of Galileo’s “Sidereus Nuncius,” the first treatise based on observations made through a telescope.
More than 400 years later, JUICE will give a much clearer picture of Europa, Ganymede and Callisto, before it became the first spacecraft to orbit one of Jupiter’s moons.
It will be the first European space mission to enter the outer solar system, which starts after Mars.
Jupiter is more than 600 million kilometers (370 million miles) from Earth, and JUICE will take a circular path before its scheduled arrival in July 2031.
The spacecraft will travel a total of 2 billion kilometers, using the gravity of Earth – and then Venus – for a nudge along the way.
“It’s like a catapult that gives us momentum to Jupiter,” said Nicholas Altobelli, JUICE project scientist at the European Space Agency (ESA).
The extra travel time will allow JUICE’s solar panels — covering an area of 85 square metres, the largest ever for an interplanetary spacecraft — to absorb as much energy as possible.
It will need that strength once it crosses the “frost line” between Mars and Jupiter, when temperatures drop to minus 220 degrees Celsius.
Then, JUICE will need to carefully hit the brakes so that it can glide into Jupiter’s orbit. For this part, he’s on his own.
“We will follow the maneuver from the ground without being able to do anything – if it fails, the mission is lost,” Cavill said.
From Jupiter’s orbit, the satellite will make 35 flybys of Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. It then enters the orbit of Ganymede, the largest of the three, before finally falling to its surface.
JUICE’s ice-penetrating cameras, sensors, spectrometers and radars will examine the moons to determine if they could be habitable in the past or present.
He wouldn’t look at the frozen surface of the moons but 10 to 15 kilometers below, where vast liquid oceans bubbling.
This harsh environment can be home to bacteria and single-celled organisms.
Josef Achbacher, director general of the European Space Agency, said the mission would not be able to detect “large fish or creatures”.
Instead, it will look for conditions capable of supporting life, including liquid water and an energy source, which could come from the tidal effect that Jupiter’s gravity exerts on its moons.
Measuring the magnetic signals, Altobelli said, could determine if the water on Ganymede was in contact with its rocky core, which would allow chemical elements essential to life to “dissolve into the water.”
NASA’s Clipper mission is scheduled to launch in 2024 on its own quest to study Europe.
If one of the moons proves to be a particularly good candidate for hosting life, Cavell said, the “logical next step” would be to send a spacecraft to land on the surface.
He added that he was moved by the idea that the juice would “end its life on the surface of Ganymede”.