The Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) spacecraft of the European Space Agency (ESA) is scheduled to launch on an Ariane 5 rocket from the European spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, at 8:15 EDT (1215 GMT) on April 13th. The launch will begin a long interplanetary journey for JUICE, which will culminate with the arrival of the spacecraft in orbit around Jupiter in 2031.
The 6.6-ton solar-powered spacecraft will conduct a series of close flybys of three of Jupiter’s four largest Galilean moons: Ganymede, Europa, and Callisto, which are believed to all have oceans of liquid water beneath their icy surfaces. In 2035, JUICE will move from orbiting Jupiter to orbiting Ganymede, the largest moon in the Solar System. The move will make the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer the first spacecraft ever to orbit a moon other than Earth‘s.
In the meantime, JUICE will observe Jupiter and the three target moons with its powerful suite of 10 scientific instruments, studying them in unprecedented detail. “The mission will characterize these moons both as planetary objects and as potential habitats. It will delve into the complex environment of Jupiter and study the wider Jovian system as an archetype for gas giants throughout the universe” ESA officials wrote in a mission description.
Future missions to Jupiter
The launch of JUICE will be the first in a series of missions to Jupiter. In 2024, it will be the turn of NASA‘s Europa Clipper spacecraft, which is expected to launch on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket. As the name suggests, Europa Clipper will focus on Europa, studying the icy moon in detail during dozens of close flybys. Additionally, the Europa Clipper spacecraft will orbit around Jupiter, as initially JUICE will also do.
Many astrobiologists consider Europa to be one of the best bets in the solar system for hosting alien life. This possibility is not at all remote because the moon’s ocean appears to be in contact with its rocky core, allowing for complex chemistry to occur. The buried oceans of Ganymede and Callisto, on the other hand, are thought to be enclosed between two layers of ice.
For now, one mission is already orbiting around Jupiter. NASA’s Juno spacecraft arrived at the largest planet in the solar system in 2016. The Juno mission is expected to conclude in 2025.