All space missions require split-second precision, but Europe’s ambitious journey to Jupiter has a tighter schedule than usual.
The Juice mission, which searches for signs of extraterrestrial life on the Jovian moons Europa, Ganymede and Calisto, has a tiny one-second window to get into orbit when it launches in April.
The European Space Agency’s orbiter must harness the gravitational forces of Earth, Mars and Venus to propel it towards its target, and the planets must line up perfectly or the spacecraft could end up drifting off course. its trajectory.
By comparison, when the Artemis I mission launched to the Moon last November, it took a leisurely two hours to lift off.
Juice, which stands for Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer, is due to launch on April 13 from Europe’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, aboard an Ariane 5 rocket.
Justin Byrne, Head of Science and Earth Exploration Missions at Airbus Defense and Space UK, which built the spacecraft, said: “The rocket is not powerful enough to send the mission directly to Jupiter, we have to so use energy from elsewhere, so we steal it from the planets.
“These planets are only going to align twice a year, in April and at the end of summer. But when it matches the Earth’s rotation, we only have a one-second launch window. every day the physics of the entire universe aligns, so it’s a pretty tricky thing.
Jupiter is about 391 million kilometers from Earth, on average, and it will take the spacecraft eight years to reach its destination.
The system is believed to be one of the best places to search for extraterrestrial life, as its ice moons are believed to contain vast icy oceans.
Once there, the orbiter will fly 200 km above Callisto, observing the oldest moon in the solar system, before making two flybys of Europa.
It is believed that under the ice crust of Europa lies a huge ocean of liquid water or melting ice, which contains twice as much water as the Earth’s oceans combined.
This vast, deep body of water is widely believed to be the most promising place to search for life in the solar system, and instruments aboard Juice will be looking for biosignatures like methane, which could hint that life is thriving. below the frozen surface.
On Earth, extremophile lifeforms have been found near subterranean volcanoes and deep-sea vents, raising hopes that they could also exist in the subterranean oceans of Jupiter’s moons.
After Europa, the mission will spend eight months around Ganymede, the first time a spacecraft has orbited a moon other than our own.
Ganymede is the only moon in the solar system known to generate its own magnetic field, so scientists are keen to determine how this is achieved.
Much like Europa and Callisto, it is home to a hidden ocean, so researchers will also be looking for signs of habitability.
“Ganymede is the one that everyone is really interested in because it has a magnetic field and it must have a molten core, but the other two have liquid under the surfaces and there is potentially life on all three,” said added Mr. Byrne.
“There are definitely some signings that we may be able to see. When the data starts coming back, it will be really intensive, with new results bang, bang, bang. We will be overwhelmed with new information.
The magnetic field surrounding Ganymede proved difficult for spacecraft engineers who had to build a lead-lined center to shield the electronics.
Mr Byrne added: ‘It has a massive magnetic field, 10,000 times stronger than Earth, so it really is the worst place to put a spacecraft. If you wanted to kill him, that’s what you would do.
In all, Juice will complete 35 flybys of the three moons, before finally performing a controlled crash on Ganymede. The team also wants to learn more about Jupiter, including why its famous red spot is shrinking.
Experts believe the one-second window is achievable, but fear the weather could wreck the launch. Too much wind or storms could cause delays and mean waiting for the next time the planets align.
If the first window is missed, there are several more opportunities in April, but after that the team will have to wait until August.