ESA’s Juice Mission is Approaching Earth. Why Has it Come Home Before Visiting Jupiter?

JUICE
JUICE approaches Earth. Credit: ESA.

JUICE Prepares for a first of its kind double-flyby next year.

A Jupiter-bound mission adjusted its course last week…for a rendezvous with Earth. The European Space Agency’s (ESA) Jupiter Icy moons Explorer (JUICE) fired its thrusters for 43 minutes on Friday, November 17th. This sets the mission up for a first of its kind double-flyby next year on August 23rd, as it passes the Moon and then the Earth to pick up momentum.

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NASA Tests a Prototype Europa Lander

Testing Hardware for Potential Future Landing on Europa. Credit: NASA JPL-Caltech

In 2024, NASA will launch the Europa Clipper, the long-awaited orbiter mission that will fly to Jupiter (arriving in 2030) to explore its icy moon Europa. Through a series of flybys, the Clipper will survey Europa’s surface and plume activity in the hopes of spotting organic molecules and other potential indications of life (“biosignatures”). If all goes well, NASA plans to send a follow-up mission to land on the surface and examine Europa’s icy sheet and plumes more closely. This proposed mission is aptly named the Europa Lander.

While no date has been set, and the mission is still in the research phase, some significant steps have been taken to get the Europa Lander to the development phase. This past August, engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California tested a prototype of this proposed landing system in a simulated environment. This system combines hardware used by previous NASA lander missions and some new elements that will enable a mission to Europa. It also could be adapted to facilitate missions to more “Ocean Worlds” and other celestial bodies in our Solar System.

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Juice is Fully Deployed. It’s Now in its Final Form, Ready to Meet Jupiter’s Moons in 2031

Still image from a video animation of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (Juice) spacecraft. (Credit: ESA/ATG Medialab)

Launched on April 14, 2023, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (Juice; formerly known as JUICE) spacecraft has finally completed the unfurling of its solar panel arrays and plethora of booms, probes, and antennae while en route to the solar system’s largest planet.

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Hurray! Juice Deploys its Stuck Antenna

One of the stuck parts of Juice's RIME antenna deploys. Credit: ESA/Juice mission.

ESA’s Juice mission launched last month on April 14, beginning its long journey to explore Jupiter’s icy moons, Ganymede, Europa, and Callisto. But soon after launch, mission controllers realized a 16-meter (52.5 ft)-long antenna for a radar instrument was jammed and couldn’t deploy. The Radar for Icy Moons Exploration (RIME) antenna is mission critical, as it gathers data for the instrument that will be able to map beneath the ice at these moons.

But, whew, the story has a happy ending. After nearly a month of efforts to free the stuck antenna, engineers figured out a fix for the RIME antenna. They fired a mechanical device in the jammed bracket, which created enough jiggling and rattling to allow the antenna to fully deploy.

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

Juice view of Earth
The Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Aden are prominent in this Earth snapshot from the JMC1 camera on the European Space Agency's Juice probe, captured a half-hour after launch on April 14. Credit: ESA / Juice / JMC, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

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.

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ESA's Juice Mission is Fully Integrated and Ready for Testing. Soon it'll fly to Space on a Mission to Jupiter's Moons

Artist's impression of the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) near Jupiter and one of its moons, Europa. Credit: ESA/AOES

Now less than one year until the projected launch date, ESA’s JUICE mission is in the final phases of development. The JUpiter ICy moons Explorer (JUICE) is now fully built with all ten instruments integrated into the spacecraft bus. Next comes all-up testing in a full flight configuration.

Launch is currently scheduled for April of 2023, with the mission slated to conduct detailed investigations of Jupiter and its system of moons, focusing on Europa, Callisto and especially Ganymede.

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What’s the Right Depth to Search for Life on Icy Worlds?

Are we alone? Is there life beyond Earth? These are the questions that plague the very essence of science, and in particular, planetary science. Unfortunately, robotic exploration of exoplanetary systems currently remains out of reach due to the literal astronomical distances to get there. For context, our nearest star, Proxima Centauri, is 4.25 light years away, or a mind-blowing 40,208,000,000,000 km (25,000,000,000,000 miles) from Earth. Finding an intelligent civilization might be out of reach for now but searching for any forms of life beyond Earth is very much possible within the confines of our own solar system.

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With Webb Safely Launched, Focus Shifts to the Ariane 6

Déchargement LLPM et ULPM au port Pariacabo, le 17/01/2022. | LLPM and ULPM unloading at Pariacabo harbor. 17/01/2022.

Last month, an Ariane 5 rocket carried the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) safely to space, the latest of 112 total launches for the European Space Agency’s (ESA) primary workhorse rocket. With a 95.5% success rate, the Ariane 5 has been a reliable ride to space for decades, but its story is about to come to an end. ESA is no longer building new Ariane 5 vehicles, instead developing its next-generation rocket, the Ariane 6, which is intended to provide cheaper access to space. This week, the first completed core stage of a new Ariane 6 rocket arrived at the spaceport outside Korou in French Guiana for testing.

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Europa has Water in its Atmosphere

Observations by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope recently revealed water vapour in the atmosphere of Ganymede, one of Jupiter’s moons. A new analysis of archival images and spectra has now revealed that water vapour is also present in the atmosphere of Jupter’s icy moon Europa. The analysis found that a water vapour atmosphere is present only on one hemisphere of the moon. This result advances our understanding of the atmospheric structure of icy moons, and helps lay the groundwork for upcoming science missions which will explore Jupiter’s icy moons.

Since the Voyager probes passed through the Jupiter system in 1979, scientists have been intrigued and mystified by its moon Europa. Once the images these probes acquired of the moon’s icy surface returned to Earth, scientists began to speculate about the possibility of a subsurface ocean. Since then, the detection of plume activity and other lines of evidence have bolstered this theory and fed speculation that there could be life beneath Europa’s icy surface.

According to new research, another critical piece of evidence of Europa’s watery nature has at least been confirmed. Using a similar technique that confirmed the presence of atmospheric water vapor in Jupiter’s moon Ganymede, Lorenz Roth of the KTH Royal Institute of Technology confirmed that Europa has water vapor in its atmosphere. This discovery could lead to a greater understanding of Europa’s atmosphere and surface environment, informing missions headed there in the near future.

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Micrometeorites Churn up the Surface of Europa. If you Want to Find Life, You’ll Need to dig Down a Meter or So

An artist's rendering of Europa and Jupiter based on images sent by visiting spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In the coming decade, NASA and the ESA will be sending two dedicated missions that will explore Jupiter’s moon Europa. These missions are known as the Europa Clipper and the JUpiter ICy moons Explorer (JUICE) missions, which will fulfill a dream that has been decades in the making – searching for possible evidence of life inside Europa. Since the 1970s, astronomers have theorized that this satellite contains a warm-water ocean that could support life.

The case for life in Europa has only been bolstered thanks to multiple flybys and observation campaigns that have been mounted since. According to new research led by the University of Hawaii at Manoa, the best way to look for potential signs of life (aka. biosignatures) would be to analyze small impact craters on Europa’s surface. These patches of exposed subsurface ice could point the way towards life that might exist deeper in the moon’s interior.

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