The JUICE probe is ready for the long journey to Jupiter and its icy moons

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Toulouse (AFP) – Are extraterrestrial life forms possible under the ice? Europe’s JUICE probe is ready for an eight-year journey through space, the destination of Jupiter and its icy moons, with potentially habitable oceans beneath the ice pack.

In the clean room of its manufacturer Airbus in Toulouse, the JUICE satellite (JUPiter ICy moons Explorer mission) is living its last moments on Earth. Emotion overwhelms the team of engineers, technicians and scientists who have worked for many years on this pioneering European Space Agency (ESA) mission.

Charlottes in white coats and protective caps can finally reveal to the press their 6.2-tonne “beast”, 10 scientific instruments, 2.50m diameter antenna and giant solar panels, which they have tested for the last time.

In a few days, the spacecraft will be folded into a transport container before flying to Kourou, French Guiana, and launched into orbit on an Ariane 5 rocket in April.

As a farewell, a commemorative plaque is engraved on the back honoring Galileo, who first observed Jupiter and its largest moons in 1610.

Cyril Cavel, JUICE project manager at Airbus Defense and Space, proudly displays a copy of the Sidereus nuncius. Messenger of the Stars” in French) by an Italian astronomer – the first treatise on astronomy in history.

A passage from Galileo’s Sidereus nuncius was etched onto the back of the satellite, then covered with thermal insulation. © Charly TRIBALLEAU / AFP

Earth and Venus as catapults

Four hundred years later, man is preparing to explore the gas giant’s natural satellites in orbit for the first time. JUICE will also be the first European mission to enter the outer solar system since Mars, the last terrestrial planet.

We will have to wait, as the journey promises to be long, with arrival scheduled for 2031. And a detour, because Jupiter, which is 740 million kilometers from the Sun, cannot be reached by a direct trajectory.

After launching into orbit, SPACECRAFT will have to use Earth’s gravitational pull and then go in search of Venus. “It’s like a catapult that propels us to Jupiter,” explains European Space Agency (ESA) mission science manager Nicolas Altobelli.

Its 85 m2 solar panels will have to collect maximum power before going to absolute near-zero temperatures (about -220 degrees).

The satellite is covered with thermal insulation coatings to deal with extreme temperatures
The satellite is covered with thermal insulation coatings to deal with extreme temperatures © Charly TRIBALLEAU / AFP

Once there, the craft and its 2 billion kilometers will have to fit into Jupiter’s orbit…after braking in full autonomy. “If the maneuver fails, the mission is lost,” Cyril Cavel explains.

Ganymede’s goal

JUICE will explore the Jovian system, fly over its moons, and then orbit the larger Ganymede. Its cameras, sensors, spectrometers and radars will try to understand whether it meets the conditions suitable for life.

Not on the frozen surface, but 10 or 15 kilometers below where liquid oceans move. A potentially favorable environment for primitive life forms such as bacteria in deep habitats – “we are not going to detect large fish”, stressed Josef Aschbacher, head of ESA.

In this case, several conditions must be met, including liquid water and an energy source related to the “tidal effects” that Jupiter’s gravity exerts on its moons.

Thanks to Ganymede’s magnetic signals, JUICE can determine whether water is in contact with the rocky core, which would allow chemical elements necessary for life, such as nutrients, to “dissolve in the water,” explains Nicolas Altobelli.

The Juice probe, an explorer of Jupiter's icy moons
The Juice probe, an explorer of Jupiter’s icy moons © Paz PIZARRO / AFP

The American “Europa Clipper” probe will discover Europa and complete the search.

If the two moons prove to be good candidates for life, the “logical next step” would be to send a lander there. “It’s part of the scientists’ dream,” says Cyril Cavel, who “acted” to know that JUICE would “end its life on the surface of Ganymede.”

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