ESA’s Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer mission – “Juice” – successfully launched today from Europe’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.
The launch was supposed to take place yesterday but was postponed due to poor weather conditions.
Today the stars aligned and Juice was successfully launched into orbit around 14:19 CEST.
It took the Ariane 5 rocket just two minutes to carry Juice into space, shortly after which it separated from the satellite, which is now beginning its eight-year journey to Jupiter.
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Juice will make the 6.6 billion kilometer journey to study three of Jupiter’s 92 known moons: Ganymede, Callisto and Europa. Each of these worlds has an ocean of water hidden beneath an icy shell – an important goal for astronomers looking for life beyond Earth.
In the two weeks following launch, the satellite will deploy all of its antennas and instrument booms. This will be followed by a three-month period during which all of the spacecraft’s science instruments will be commissioned.
It will be even longer before its first flyby, which is scheduled for August 2024. Then, about a day and a half later, it will fly past the moon and then Earth. The satellite will use the Earth-Moon gravitational field to propel itself toward Jupiter.
Juice is scheduled to arrive at Jupiter in July 2031. After its arrival, it will spend three and a half years orbiting the gas giant and flying over three of its moons at close range.
Juice will be the first spacecraft to orbit a moon other than Earth’s. Photo credit: ESA.
In December 2023, the spacecraft will change orbit and move from Jupiter to Ganymede. In this way, Juice will be the first satellite ever to orbit a moon other than Earth’s.
But it won’t be alone out there. NASA is also launching a Jupiter-bound spacecraft that Europe clipperswhich will orbit Europe in 2024.
Norbert Krupp, an interdisciplinary scientist at the Juice program, says the NASA satellite’s presence is perfect timing and “allows for a two-point comparison of the data” that will improve the overall impact of the mission.
Juice is equipped with 10 instruments designed to give scientists a look not only at the surface of Jupiter and its icy moons, but also at what lies beneath. The hope is that this will allow the creation of computer-generated, three-dimensional images of its interior.
The satellite will use radar to look inside the moons, lidar to create 3D maps of their surfaces, and magnetometers to probe their intricate electrical and magnetic environments. Other sensors will collect data on the swirling particles surrounding the moons, and cameras will send myriads of images back to Earth.
Juice is equipped with 10 instruments, giving scientists an unprecedented view of Jupiter and its icy moons. Photo credit: Airbus.
dr Caroline Harper, Head of Space Science at the UK Space Agency, believes it will confirm the existence of salty oceans beneath the surface of Ganymede.
“JUICE isn’t designed per se to look for life on an icy moon, but if we find life elsewhere in the solar system, it’s likely to be under the ice if there’s an ocean under the ice on one of those moons,” she said.
“So it’s going to be very exciting to see if we find what we expect, if there are salty oceans beneath the icy crust that could contain the conditions that support life.”
Scientists are interested in Jupiter’s moons because they appear to harbor vast oceans of liquid water hidden by ice sheets tens of kilometers thick, and these oceans may possess favorable conditions for the existence of some form of life.
Although Juice is unlikely to find evidence of life on Jupiter’s moons, the mission will help scientists better understand whether or not those moons have the right conditions for life.
Juice mission controllers plan to dispose of the spacecraft by crashing it onto Ganymede’s surface. This controlled destruction will prevent Juice from becoming a piece of space junk that could collide with future missions.
The €1.6 billion launch of Juice comes after a series of setbacks in European launches, the most notable of which was the launch Fail by Vega-C in December 2022.
On the plus side, it’s new Research shows that Europe overtook the US in space investment in the first quarter of this year, becoming the world’s largest market for private space finance.
The hope is that this funding will bolster Europe’s domestic space capabilities and give start-ups the boost they need to scale.