Around 13:33 UTC today, the European Space Agency’s JUICE (JUpiter ICy moons Explorer) spacecraft lifted off from French Guiana atop an Ariane 5 rocket. This marked the start of a 5 billion kilometer journey to Jupiter, where the spacecraft will spend four years studying the planet’s moons and searching for signs of extraterrestrial life.
JUICE is carrying 10 state-of-the-art scientific instruments, including cameras, spectrometers, an ice-penetrating radar, an altimeter, a radio-science experiment, a particle package, and various magnetic and electric field sensors. These instruments will help scientists understand whether there is any possibility that the moons and their subsurface oceans could host microbial life.
The spacecraft will make a series of flybys of Callisto, Ganymede, and Europa, three of Jupiter’s largest moons, collecting data and images as it goes. JUICE will also study Jupiter’s magnetosphere, atmosphere, and the dust and gas in the Jovian system.
Michael Schöllhorn, CEO of Airbus Defence and Space, the company that designed and built the JUICE spacecraft, spoke about the emotional moment of watching the launch from sites across Europe. “After years of work, this is the best of Europe coming together,” he said. “I’m eager to see the next big thing coming from the European space community.”
The launch of JUICE was a shared success for 80 partners across 23 countries and more than 2,000 people who worked on the project. Airbus has a legacy of supporting interplanetary missions for the ESA, with JUICE being no exception, featuring the largest solar arrays ever built for a science mission.
JUICE is due to arrive at Jupiter in 2031 after a series of gravity slingshots from Venus and Earth to propel it on its way. This will be a historic achievement, as JUICE will be the first spacecraft to enter orbit around Jupiter since NASA’s Juno mission in 2016.
The search for extraterrestrial life has long been a priority for scientists studying the cosmos. While the idea of finding living organisms on other planets or moons within our own solar system remains a long shot, JUICE’s mission is an important step towards understanding the conditions necessary for life beyond Earth.
Jupiter’s moons, particularly Europa, have long been considered prime targets in the search for extraterrestrial life. Europa’s subsurface ocean is believed to contain twice as much water as all of Earth’s oceans combined, and the moon’s icy shell is thought to cover a global ocean of liquid water. Scientists believe that if microbial life exists anywhere in our solar system beyond Earth, Europa is the most likely place to find it.
JUICE’s instruments will be critical in determining whether Europa and other moons could support life. The spacecraft’s radar will help scientists study the subsurface structure of these moons, and the magnetometer will measure the strength and direction of the magnetic fields. These data will help scientists understand the conditions necessary for life and whether Jupiter’s moons could host it.
The launch of JUICE is just the latest in a series of exciting developments in the search for extraterrestrial life. In recent years, scientists have discovered thousands of exoplanets orbiting other stars, some of which are believed to be in the habitable zone, where conditions may be right for life to exist. With the development of advanced telescopes and space exploration technology, the search for extraterrestrial life has become a major focus of scientific research.