Europe’s spacecraft Juice takes off to explore the moons of Jupiter

A European spacecraft is en route to Jupiter on a mission to explore whether its oceanic moons can support life.

The six-tonne spacecraft, dubbed Juice (Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer), took off on an Ariane 5 rocket on Friday at 1.14pm UK time from Europe’s Kourou Spaceport in French Guiana.

Juice was due to take off on Thursday, but weather conditions showed there was a risk of lightning.

The spacecraft is now making a 4.1 billion-mile journey that will take more than eight years.

There are 10 scientific instruments on board, which will investigate whether the gas giant’s three moons – Callisto, Europa and Ganymede – can support life in its oceans.

Josef Aschbacher, Director General of the European Space Agency (ESA), said: “ESA, with its international partners, is on its way to Jupiter.

“Juice’s spectacular launch brings with it the vision and ambition of those who conceived the mission decades ago, the skill and passion of all who built this incredible machine, the driving force of our flight operations team and the curiosity of the global scientific community.

“Together, we will continue to push the boundaries of science and exploration to answer humanity’s biggest questions.”

Graphic of the Juice spacecraft

(PA graphics)

Professor Leigh N Fletcher, from the University of Leicester’s School of Physics and Astronomy, who has been involved with the Juice mission since 2008, described the launch as a ‘breathtaking moment’.

The professor. Fletcher, who watched the launch from the European Space Operations Center (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany, said: “What an incredible and moving moment to witness the launch from here at ESOC, together with colleagues who dreamed of a mission to Jupiter in the last 15 years.

“My heart is still pounding, huge smiles in this room and such a burst of emotion after the disappointment of yesterday’s delay.”

Professor Andrew Coates, of the Mullard Space Science Laboratory at University College London, is a co-investigator on two of Juice’s 10 science instruments: PEP, which will collect data on the atoms surrounding Jupiter and its moons, and Janus, the spacecraft optical camera system.

He said: “So exciting to see Juice safely on his way to Jupiter, so far so good, a great launch on Ariane 5, and so far all nominal with the separation confirmed!

“We look forward to starting exploring Jupiter’s magnetosphere in 2031, watching Europa, Ganymede and Callisto during flybys, and orbiting Ganymede in 2034.

“We are honored to have helped define the mission and to be part of the PEP and Janus teams.”

Meanwhile, Dr Chiaki Crews, a researcher at The Open University who was also involved in testing Janus, said: ‘We are delighted and relieved to see that Juice has been successfully launched, and it is exciting to think that the sensor of the Janus camera that once sitting in a clean room of the Open University is on board the spacecraft!”

The British space agency has invested £9 million in the mission.

Scientists at Imperial College London spearheaded the development of an instrument, known as a magnetometer.

Called J-MAG, it will measure the characteristics of the magnetic fields of Jupiter and Ganymede, the only moon known to produce its own magnetic field.

Juice will perform a maneuver known as gravity assist, in which he will use the gravity of Earth and Venus to launch himself towards Jupiter.

At its destination, the spacecraft will spend at least three years making detailed studies of Jupiter, Ganymede, Europa and Callisto.

Juice isn’t equipped to look for signs of life, but its aim is to explore conditions that could support life.

Underneath Europa’s ice sheet is thought to lie a massive ocean of liquid water, containing twice as much water as the Earth’s oceans combined.

But scientists are most interested in Ganymede, Jupiter’s largest moon, which is thought to have a salty ocean under its icy shell.

One of Juice’s main goals is to explore this body of water and determine if this world can be habitable.

ESA's Jupiter mission

Juice, taking off on an Ariane 5 rocket from the European spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana (ESA)

Data collected by the J-MAG instrument will help characterize the depth and salt content of Ganymede’s ocean.

Juice was built to withstand strong radiation and extreme conditions, ranging from 250°C around Venus to minus 230°C near Jupiter.

Sensitive electronics are protected within a pair of lead-lined vaults within the spacecraft body.

Hopefully, Juice should reach Jupiter in July 2031 and have enough fuel to make 35 flybys of the icy moons before orbiting Ganymede by December 2034.

Once the spacecraft runs out of fuel, Juice will perform a controlled crash into Ganymede, marking the end of the £14bn mission.

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