Meet JUICE, The First Spacecraft To Orbit A Planet-Sized Icy Moon On A Hunt For Alien Oceans

What’s underneath the icy crusts of three of Jupiter’s moons?

It’s had little attention thus far but in exactly one year everyone is going to be talking about JUICE—an exciting and unique mission to examine Jupiter’s moons Europa, Callisto and Ganymede that will see it go into a full-on orbit of the latter.

  • Ganymede is the largest moon we know of. It’s bigger than Mercury and Pluto. It has a magnetic field. It has an atmosphere. It may have an underground saltwater ocean.
  • Europa is the smallest of the so-called Galilean moons of Jupiter, but one of the most exciting. It’s also thought to have an ocean below its frozen outer shell that may have existed since the formation of the Solar System … long enough for life to take hold.
  • Callisto, Jupiter’s second largest moon after Ganymede, has a dull, lifeless look about it—but is now also thought to have an underground ocean.

JUICE will find out for sure. Short for JUpiter ICy moons Explorer , this large-class mission in the European Space Agency’s “Cosmic Vision” program is scheduled to launch between April 5-25, 2023 on an Ariane 5 rocket from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana, South America.

After a long cruise to the Jovian System it will arrive in 2031 to become the first European spacecraft to visit Jupiter. It will then take three and a half years to examine the icy moons Ganymede, Europa and Callisto.

Its unique mission will look at Europa and Callisto during flybys. It will also do flybys of Ganymede, but crucially it will also go into orbit in September 2032.

As it does so it will become the first spacecraft to orbit a moon other than Earth’s Moon.

Ganymede is particularly interesting. A weird and wonderful place, Ganymede may look a little like our moon but that’s where the similarity ends. It’s actually covered in an icy crust, but scientists think it may have a subsurface ocean about 100 kilometers below.

Ganymede also has a magnetic field, which is a clue that it has an iron core surrounded by liquid metallic components, which—as on Earth—allows a magnetic field to be generated and sustained.

These will be the first close flybys of these moons since NASA’s Galileo mission in 1995-2003. However, in June 2021 NASA’s Juno spacecraft was able to get very close to Ganymede.

A year prior to JUICE’s arrival, NASA’s Europa Clipper mission will orbit Europa 32 times … so if you love icy moons then the next decade or two of space exploration is going to be very exciting.

Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.

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