(CNN) The European Space Agency is about to send a spacecraft to explore Jupiter and its three largest and most intriguing moons.
The Jupiter IC Moons Explorer mission, or JUICE, is expected to launch at 8:15 a.m. ET Thursday on an Ariane 5 rocket from Europe’s spaceport in Gouro, French Guiana. Watch the release live ESA’s website Or YouTube channel.
After launch, the spacecraft will separate from the Ariane 5 rocket approximately 28 minutes later. In 17 days, Juice will deploy its solar arrays, antennas and other equipment, followed by three months of testing and preparing the instruments.
It takes eight years for the juice to reach Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system. During its long journey, the spacecraft will fly by Earth, our moon and Venus using some gravity slingshots to aid the journey.
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Once Zeus arrives at Jupiter in July 2031, the spacecraft will spend about three and a half years orbiting the gas giant and flyby its three moons, Ganymede, Callisto and Europa. At the end of the mission, Juice will focus solely on orbiting Ganymede, making it the first spacecraft to orbit a moon in the outer solar system.
Ganymede, Callisto, and Europa are ice-covered worlds that may have underground oceans that could harbor life.
Meanwhile, NASA’s Europa Clipper missionLaunched in 2024, it is expected to reach Jupiter in April 2030 and conduct nearly 50 flybys of Europa, eventually reaching just 16 miles (25 kilometers) from the moon’s surface.
Together, the two missions could unlock some of the biggest mysteries about Jupiter and its moons.
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Exploration of Jupiter began in the 1970s with NASA’s Pioneer and Voyager missions, followed by dedicated Jupiter missions such as the Galileo and Juno probes. Juno orbits Jupiter and has been flying by some of its moons since 2016.
The JUICE mission has five main objectives: to use its powerful suite of 10 instruments to characterize three icy moons, determine whether they have oceans, discover what makes Ganymede so unique, and determine whether the moons are habitable.
Planetary scientists want to know how deep the oceans are, if they contain salt or fresh water, and how that water interacts with each moon’s ice. Ganymede, Callisto and Europa have different surfaces. Juice can reveal what kind of activity caused some of them to appear dark and pitted or pale and pitted.
Ganymede is the largest moon in the Solar System, larger than Pluto and Mercury, and has a magnetic field similar to Earth’s. Zus’s instruments can reveal the moon’s rotation, gravity, shape, interior structure, composition, and roughness using radar through its icy crust.
JUICE will also conduct a detailed analysis of Jupiter to determine how the complex magnetic and radiation environment surrounding this massive planet shaped its moons and how Jupiter first formed. Understanding Jupiter’s origin story can help scientists apply those findings to Jupiter-like planets found outside our solar system.
Jupiter’s magnetic field is 20 times stronger than Earth’s and has a harsh radiation environment, both of which affect its moons. The JUICE mission is designed to unravel what happens when Jupiter interacts with its moons, including auroras, hot spots, radio emissions and waves of charged particles.
Potential for life
Although all three moons are encased in thick ice sheets, internal heating can take place at each moon’s core — and that heating could make interior oceans potential habitats for past or present life.
Sources of the building blocks of life, including elements such as carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, iron and magnesium, can be found on moons.
Previous missions such as Galileo and Cassini, which visited Saturn and its moons, confirmed the existence of liquid water on planets and moons far from the Sun – and that water is likely beneath the surface.
“I think Zoos confirms that our understanding of where to look for potential habitat has changed over the last 20 years,” said Michael Dougherty, Royal Society Research Professor at Imperial College London and principal investigator of Zoos’ magnetometer.
Life as we understand it on Earth requires liquid water, heat and organic matter — “and then you need those first three things to be stable enough for a long enough time that something can actually happen,” Dougherty said.
“With JUICE, we want to confirm the presence of liquid water on these moons and confirm their heat sources. Other instruments can remotely sense whether there is organic material on the surface, so that ties all of that material together,” he said. said.
Zuss’ truck-sized spacecraft is designed to survive the long journey to Jupiter — and survive the extremes of the gas giant’s environment once it arrives. Two cross-shaped solar arrays will power the spacecraft and lead-lined vaults will protect its highly sensitive electronics.
The ESA-led mission includes contributions from NASA and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. Testing and modeling of Jupiter’s radiation belts allowed engineers to predict what Jupiter would encounter.
“The main achievement of this model is to show that what at first appeared to be a dangerous place is completely out of reach,” said Christian Erdt, Juss spacecraft and systems manager, in a statement. “About three and a half years on Jupiter would cover the equivalent radiation exposure of a telecommunications satellite in 20 years in geostationary Earth orbit — we have a lot of experience managing this.”
To help Jupiter survive, its trajectory is designed to pass Callisto 21 times, but swing by Europa only twice. Europa is closest to Jupiter and sits well within its radiation halo. Two orbits of the Moon will experience about a third of the spacecraft’s total radiation.
Some of Jus’s instruments are shielded, while others are exposed to the elements to study the atmospheres of Jupiter and its moons. Multiple imagers and sensors capture and transmit data at different wavelengths of light.
Given the distance between the spacecraft and Earth, it would take 45 minutes to send a one-way signal to Juice. But that’s nothing compared to the years of waiting for the juice to come to Jupiter.
Scientists are already anticipating unique data on the return of juice.
“I think Ganymede’s first flyby was a very important moment,” Dougherty said. “We’re going to confirm there’s an ocean during the first one or two flybys.”
CNN’s Katie Hunt contributed reporting.