New mission to icy moons of Jupiter blasts off

A European spacecraft rocketed away Friday on a decade-long quest to explore Jupiter and three of its icy moons that could have buried oceans.

European spacecraft — called JUICE — will explore potential sub-glacial oceans

A tall, white rocket with fire and plumes of white smoke at its base blasts off against a cloudy sky.
An Ariane rocket carrying the robotic explorer JUICE takes off from Europe's spaceport in French Guiana. The European spacecraft has blasted off on a quest to explore Jupiter and three of its ice-encrusted moons. The robotic explorer set off on an eight-year journey Friday. (European Space Agency/The Associated Press)

A European spacecraft rocketed away Friday on a decade-long quest to explore Jupiter and three of its icy moons that could have buried oceans.

The journey began with a morning liftoff by Europe's Ariane rocket from French Guiana in South America. Arianespace's chief executive Stephane Israel called it "an absolutely perfect launch."

But there were some tense minutes later on as controllers waited for signals from the spacecraft nearly an hour into the flight.

When contact was confirmed, European Space Agency's Bruno Sousa declared from mission control in Germany: "The spacecraft is alive!"

It will take the robotic explorer, dubbed JUICE (for Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer), eight years to reach Jupiter, where it will scope out not only the solar system's biggest planet, but also Europa, Callisto and Ganymede. The three ice-encrusted moons are believed to harbour oceans beneath their icy surfaces, where sea life could exist.

Then, in perhaps the most impressive feat of all, JUICE will attempt to go into orbit around Ganymede: No spacecraft has ever orbited a moon other than our own.

With so many moons — at last count 92 — astronomers consider Jupiter a mini solar system of its own, with missions like JUICE long overdue.

"We are not going to detect life with JUICE," stressed the European Space Agency's project scientist, Olivier Witasse.

But learning more about the moons and their potential seas will bring scientists closer to answering the is-there-life-elsewhere question.

"That will be really the most interesting aspect of the mission," he said.

The search for life

JUICE is taking a long, roundabout route to Jupiter, covering 6.6 billion kilometres.

It will swoop within 200 kilometres of Callisto and 400 kilometres of Europa and Ganymede, completing 35 flybys while circling Jupiter. Then it will hit the brakes to orbit Ganymede, the primary target of the 1.6 billion-euro mission ($2.4 billion Cdn).

Ganymede is not only the solar system's largest moon — it surpasses Mercury — but has its own magnetic field with dazzling auroras at the poles.

Four grey moons hang in the darkness of space.
This montage shows the best views of Jupiter's four large and diverse 'Galilean' satellites as seen by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on the New Horizons spacecraft during its flyby of Jupiter in late February 2007. The four moons are, from left to right: Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)

Even more enticing, it's thought to have an underground ocean holding more water than Earth. Ditto for Europa and its reported geysers, and heavily cratered Callisto, a potential destination for humans given its distance from Jupiter's debilitating radiation belts, according to Carnegie Institution's Scott Sheppard, who's not involved with the JUICE mission.

"The ocean worlds in our solar system are the most likely to have possible life, so these large moons of Jupiter are prime candidates to search," said Sheppard, a moon hunter who's helped discover well over 100 in the outer solar system.

The spacecraft, about the size of a small bus, won't reach Jupiter until 2031, relying on gravity-assist flybys of Earth and our moon, as well as Venus.

Jupiter, with different shades of browns and white bands and a large egg-shaped storm, hangs in the blackness of space, with its moon Ganymede.
Jupiter, with its prominent Great Red Spot, hangs in space with Ganymede. (NASA/ESA and E. Karkoschka/Reuters)

"These things take time — and they change our world," said the Planetary Society's chief executive, Bill Nye. The California-based space advocacy group organized a virtual watch party for the launch.

Belgium's King Philippe and Prince Gabriel, and a pair of astronauts — France's Thomas Pesquet and Germany's Matthias Maurer — were among the spectators in French Guiana. Thursday's launch attempt was nixed by the threat of lightning.

NASA also sending spacecraft to Jupiter

JUICE — short for Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer — will spend three years buzzing Callisto, Europa and Ganymede. The spacecraft will attempt to enter orbit around Ganymede in late 2034, circling the moon for nearly a year before flight controllers send it crashing down in 2035, later if enough fuel remains.

Europa is especially attractive to scientists hunting for signs of life beyond Earth. JUICE will keep its Europa encounters to a minimum, however, because of the intense radiation there so close to Jupiter.

Jupiter's beige-coloured moon Europa, which is marked by brown zig-zagged lines, hangs in the blackness of space.
Jupiter's icy moon Europa is seen here, with its long, linear cracks and ridges, where the surface ice crust has been broken up and re-frozen into new patterns. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute)

JUICE's sensitive electronics are encased in lead to protect against radiation. The 6,350-kilogram spacecraft also is wrapped with thermal blankets — temperatures near Jupiter hover around –230 C. And its solar panels stretch 27 metres tip to tip to soak in as much sunlight that far from the sun.

Late next year, NASA will send an even more heavily shielded spacecraft to Jupiter, the long-awaited Europa Clipper, which will beat JUICE to Jupiter by more than a year because it will launch on SpaceX's mightier rocket. The two spacecraft will team up to study Europa like never before.

NASA has long dominated exploration at Jupiter, beginning with flybys in the 1970s by the twin Pioneers and then Voyagers. Only one spacecraft remains humming at Jupiter: NASA's Juno, which just logged its 50th orbit since 2016.

Europe provided nine of JUICE's science instruments, with NASA supplying just one.

If JUICE confirms underground oceans conducive to past or present life, Witasse said the next step will be to send drills to penetrate the icy crusts and maybe even a submarine.

"We have to be creative," he said. "We can still think it's science fiction, but sometimes the science fiction can join the reality."