(CNN) The European Space Agency is about to send a spacecraft to explore Jupiter and three of its largest and most interesting moons.
The Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer mission, or Juice, is expected to launch Thursday at 8:15 a.m. ET aboard an Ariane 5 rocket from the European Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. Watch the launch live ESA website or YouTube channel.
After launch, the spacecraft will separate from the Ariane 5 launch pad after about 28 minutes. Over the course of 17 days, Juice will deploy its solar arrays, antennas and other instruments, followed by three months of testing and hardware setup.
It will take the juice eight years to reach Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system. During its long cruise, the spacecraft will use some gravity slingshots as it flies by Earth, the Moon, and Venus to aid in the journey.
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Once Juice reaches Jupiter in July 2031, the spacecraft will spend about three and a half years orbiting the gas giant and making flybys of three of its moons: Ganymede, Callisto, and Europa. Towards the end of the mission, Juice will focus solely on orbiting Ganymede, making it the first spacecraft to orbit a moon in the outer solar system.
Ganymede, Callisto, and Europa are ice-covered worlds that may contain subsurface oceans that could be habitable.
Meanwhile, NASA Europa Clipper missionLaunched in 2024, it is expected to reach Jupiter in April 2030 and make nearly 50 flybys of Europa, eventually reaching 16 miles (25 kilometers) above the lunar surface.
Together, the two missions could unlock some of the biggest mysteries about Jupiter and its moons.
Up close with the king of the solar system
Exploration of Jupiter began with NASA’s Pioneer and Voyager missions in the 1970s, followed by dedicated Jupiter missions such as Galileo and the Juno probe. Juno has been orbiting Jupiter and flying by some of its moons since 2016.
Juice’s mission has five main goals, including using its powerful suite of 10 instruments to characterize the three icy moons and determine if they harbor oceans, discover what makes Ganymede so unique and determine if the moons are likely to be habitable for life.
Planetary scientists want to know how deep the oceans are, whether they contain salt or fresh water, and how that water interacts with the icy shell of each moon. Various roofs are also found on Ganymede, Callisto and Europa. The juice can reveal the type of activity that caused some of them to appear dark and pitted or pale and pitted.
Ganymede is the largest moon in the solar system, larger than Pluto and Mercury, and the only one with a magnetic field similar to Earth’s. Juicy instruments can reveal the moon’s rotation, gravity, shape, internal structure, and composition, and peer through its icy crust using radar.
Juice will also conduct a detailed analysis of Jupiter to determine how the complex magnetic and radiation environment formed around this massive planet, as well as how Jupiter formed in the first place. Understanding more of Jupiter’s origin story could help scientists apply these findings to Jupiter-like planets outside our solar system.
Jupiter’s magnetic field is 20 times stronger than Earth’s and it has a harsh radiation environment, both of which affect its moons. The Juice mission is designed to reveal what happens when Jupiter interacts with its moons, including aurora borealis, hot spots, radio emissions, and waves of charged particles.
possibility of life
Although all three moons are covered in thick ice shells, internal heating can occur at the core of each moon – and that warmth could make the inner oceans possible habitats for past or present life.
Smoothies can search the moons for evidence of the building blocks of life, including elements like carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, iron and magnesium.
Previous missions such as Galileo and Cassini, which visited Saturn and its moons, have confirmed that liquid water can be found on planets and moons far from the sun – and that water is likely to be present below the surface.
“I think Juice is confirmation that our understanding of where to look for habitability has changed in the last 20 years,” said Michelle Dougherty, Royal Society Research Professor at Imperial College London and principal investigator of the magnetometer on Jos.
Dougherty said that life as we understand it on Earth requires liquid water, a heat source, and organic matter—”and then you need those first three ingredients to be stable enough over a long enough period of time for something to happen.”
“With Juice, we want to make sure there’s liquid water in these moons, and confirm their heat sources. And other instruments will be able to remotely sense if there’s organic material on the surface as well. And so it brings all of those components together,” he said.
Juice’s truck-sized spacecraft is designed to survive the long journey to Jupiter–and she must navigate the harsh conditions of the gas giant’s environment once there. Two cross-shaped solar arrays will provide power to the spacecraft and the lead-lined vaults will protect its most sensitive electronics.
The European Space Agency-led mission includes contributions from NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. Testing and modeling Jupiter’s radiation belts allowed engineers to prepare for what Juice would encounter.
“The main achievement of this model for us was to show that what initially appeared to be a dangerous place was not completely out of reach,” Christian Aird, spacecraft and system manager at Jos, said in a statement. “About three and a half years at Jupiter would include the equivalent radiation exposure of a communications satellite in geostationary orbit for 20 years — which we have a lot of experience managing.”
In order to help Juice survive, his trajectory is designed to fly behind Callisto 21 times but only swing by Europa twice. Europa is closest to Jupiter and sits well within its radiation halo. Just two orbits of the Moon would cause the spacecraft to experience one-third of its total radiation exposure.
Some of Juice’s tools are protected, while others will be exposed to the elements to explore Jupiter’s atmospheres and moons. Multiple imaging devices and sensors will capture and transmit data via different wavelengths of light.
Given the final distance between the spacecraft and Earth, it would take 45 minutes to send a one-way signal to Juice. But that’s nothing compared to years of waiting for Jupiter’s juice to arrive.
Scientists are already anticipating the return of unique data juice.
“I think the most important time is our first flight from Ganymede,” said Dougherty. “The first flight or two is when we’ll confirm the ocean’s presence.”
CNN’s Katie Hunt contributed to this report.
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