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Destination: Jupiter’s Frozen Moons

3 May 2012


Jupiter’s icy moons are the focus of Europe’s next large science mission, as ESA announces the next of its L-class missions.


 A composite image showing [L-R] the icy moons Europa, Ganymede, & Callisto. Credit: NASA. (JPG, 93 Kb) 
A composite image showing [L-R] the icy moons Europa, Ganymede, & Callisto.
Credit: NASA.

At a meeting in Paris, the ESA Science Program Committee voted unanimously to go ahead with the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE), the first European-led mission to the outer solar system and the first spacecraft destined to orbit an icy moon. The JUICE spacecraft is scheduled to launch in 2022, arriving in the Jupiter system in 2030.

Jupiter’s diverse Galilean moons – volcanic Io, icy Europa and rock-ice Ganymede and Callisto – make the Jovian system a miniature Solar System in its own right.

This (JPG, 665 Kb) The JUICE mission relies on a strong heritage of outer solar system exploration by UK scientists, such as those involved in the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn and Titan.

Proposing instruments for JUICE will be several universities, including Imperial, Oxford, Leicester and University College London. These instruments will be specifically designed to study the gas giant, its icy moons and charged particle environment to an unprecedented level of detail, giving our most detailed characterisation of the jovian system ever obtained.

With Europa, Ganymede and Callisto all thought to host internal oceans, the mission will study the moons as potential habitats for life, addressing two key themes of Cosmic Vision: what are the conditions for planet formation and the emergence of life, and how does the Solar System work? 

JUICE will continuously observe Jupiter’s atmosphere and magnetosphere, and the interaction of the Galilean moons with the gas giant planet.

It will visit Callisto, the most heavily cratered object in the Solar System, and will twice fly by Europa. JUICE will make the first measurements of the thickness of Europa’s icy crust and will identify candidate sites for future in situ exploration.

The spacecraft will finally enter orbit around Ganymede in 2032, where it will study the icy surface and internal structure of the moon, including its subsurface ocean.

 The illustration shows Jupiter and its large moons: Ganymede, Europa, Io and Callisto. Credit: ESA. Artist: M. Carroll. (JPG, 470 Kb) 
The illustration shows Jupiter and its large moons: Ganymede, Europa, Io and Callisto.
Credit: ESA. Artist: M. Carroll.

Ganymede is the only moon in the Solar System known to generate its own magnetic field, and JUICE will observe the unique magnetic and plasma interactions with Jupiter’s magnetosphere in detail.

“Jupiter is the archetype for the giant planets of the Solar System and for many giant planets being found around other stars,” says Prof. Alvaro Giménez Cañete, ESA’s Director of Science and Robotic Exploration.

“JUICE will give us better insight into how gas giants and their orbiting worlds form, and their potential for hosting life.”

I work in space

Ian Whittaker I work as a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Otago.

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