Moons of Jupiter, here we come. The European Space Agency (ESA) is sending an orbiter on an 8-year journey towards Jupiter, where it will explore three of the gas giant’s four large moons. The orbiter, called the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) is scheduled to launch on 13 April from Kourou, French Guiana.
If all goes to plan, it will launch at 12:15 UTC atop an Ariane 5 rocket. The journey to Jupiter isn’t a direct one, though – at launch, the spacecraft won’t have enough speed to go straight there. Instead, it will take a circuitous route, making a series of close passes by Earth and Venus over the course of the next six years. Those passes will have a sort of slingshot effect, speeding up the orbiter to get it to the Jupiter system.
Once it gets there in 2031, it will perform another series of close passes, this time to Jupiter’s moons Europa, Callisto and Ganymede. Those passes will help optimize the orbit, but they’ll also allow JUICE to check out Europa and Callisto, observing their icy shells and measuring their interior structure, before moving into orbit around Ganymede for the remainder of the mission.
All three icy moons are thought to contain oceans of liquid water, so one of JUICE’s main goals is to characterise those oceans: how deep they’re buried under the ice, where they’re located, and whether they might have the right conditions to harbour life. It will carry a suite of 10 advanced scientific instruments to examine the moons more carefully than ever before – plus observations of Jupiter itself – digging in to the possibility of life not only in our own solar system, but also around similar planets orbiting distant stars.