Jupiter Juice mission: ESA sends spacecraft to find alien worlds in our solar system

One of the planet’s moons has a salty ocean that might harbour life

Andrew Griffin
Technology Editor
Friday 14 April 2023 22:02 BST
ESA launches JUICE mission to Jupiter and its moons

The European Space Agency blasted a rocket into space on Friday in the hope of finding signs of life in our solar system.

The £14bn Juice mission was launched on an Ariane 5 spacecraft, the start of a 4.1 billion-mile journey to Jupiter and its moons that will take more than eight years.

Liftoff took place in the early morning from French Guiana on the coast of South America.

There were some tense minutes as controllers awaited signals from the craft. When contact finally was confirmed close to an hour into the flight, Mission Control in Germany declared: “The spacecraft is alive!”

Juice, a robotic explorer, will scope out the solar system’s biggest planet and three ice-encrusted moons which are believed to have underground oceans where sea life could exist.

“This is a mission that is answering questions of science that are burning to all of us,” said ESA director general, Josef Aschbacher after the launch. “Of course, one of these questions is: Is there life out there?”

It can't find life, “but Juice will be identifying the habitability of these icy moons around Jupiter”, he added.

Onboard are 10 scientific instruments. Scientists from Imperial College London have led the development of one instrument, known as the magnetometer.

Called J-Mag, it will measure the characteristics of magnetic fields of Jupiter and Ganymede – the only moon known to produce its own magnetic field.

Juice will perform a manoeuvre known as gravitational assist, where it will use the gravity of Earth and Venus to slingshot toward Jupiter.

At its destination, the spacecraft will spend at least three years making detailed studies of Jupiter, Ganymede, Europa and Callisto.

Juice is not equipped to search for signs of life but its aim is to explore the conditions that could support life.

Beneath the ice crust of Europa is thought to lie a huge ocean of liquid water, containing twice as much water as Earth’s oceans combined.

But scientists are more interested in Ganymede, Jupiter’s largest moon, which is thought to have a salty ocean beneath its icy shell.

One of Juice‘s key goals is to explore this body of water and determine whether this world may be habitable.

Data gathered from the J-Mag’s instruments will help characterise the depth and salt content of Ganymede’s ocean.

Juice has been built to withstand harsh radiation and extreme conditions, ranging from 250C around Venus to minus 230C near Jupiter.

Sensitive electronics are protected inside a pair of lead-lined vaults within the body of the spacecraft.

If all goes well, Juice should reach Jupiter in July 2031 and will have enough fuel to make 35 flybys of the icy moons before orbiting Ganymede from December 2034.

Once the spacecraft runs out of fuel, Juice will perform a controlled crash into Ganymede, marking the end of the £14bn mission.

Additional reporting by agencies

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