Astronomy

Juice Looks Back at Earth During Its Space Odyssey to Jupiter’s Moons

As the European Space Agency’s Juice spacecraft headed out on an eight-year trip to Jupiter’s icy moons, it turned back to snap some selfies with Earth in the background — and those awesome shots are just the start.

The bus-sized probe is due to make four slingshot flybys of Earth and Venus to pick up some gravity-assisted boosts to its destination — and ESA mission managers plan to have the monitoring cameras running during those close encounters.

One of the first selfies, snapped shortly after the probe’s April 14 launch from ESA’s spaceport in French Guiana atop an Ariane 5 rocket, shows a wide swath of Earth’s disk including the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Aden. Another reveals a cloud-mottled patch of ocean. A view of a stowed radar antenna dominates the foreground in a third image. And two images document the rotation of Juice’s solar arrays.

The point of the pictures isn’t merely to have some keepsake snapshots sitting around: ESA installed two monitoring cameras on Juice (which is an acronym standing for JUpiter ICy Moons Explorer) in order to keep tabs on the spacecraft’s solar arrays and antennas as they’re being deployed. Being able to get some shots of other celestial bodies in the background is a bonus.

The views from the JMC1 camera on the front of the spacecraft and the JMC2 camera on top aren’t exactly high-definition. The resolution is 1024 x 1024 pixels, and the images have gone through only a light round of processing. A scientific-grade camera will send back much higher-resolution images after the probe gets to the vicinity of Europa, Callisto and Ganymede in 2031.

Juice’s primary mission is to make up-close observations of those icy Jovian moons with its cameras and a magnetometer — and with a radar instrument that can probe beneath the moons’ surfaces to chart the watery oceans that scientists say lie beneath. There’s a chance those oceans could harbor alien life, but that’s unlikely to show up on radar.

There’s a lot of traveling that Juice will have to do before that part of the mission starts. To keep track of the spacecraft during its space odyssey in the 2020s, and to learn more about how it’ll get where it’s going, check out ESA’s “Where Is Juice Now” webpage.

Alan Boyle

Science writer Alan Boyle is the creator of Cosmic Log, a veteran of MSNBC.com and NBC News Digital, and the author of "The Case for Pluto." He's based in Seattle, but the cosmos is his home.

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