The European Space Agency’s JUICE space probe successfully took off on Friday on a mission to find out whether the icy moons of Jupiter are capable of hosting extraterrestrial life in their vast hidden oceans.
The launch on an Ariane 5 rocket from Europe’s Kourou spaceport in French Guiana came after an earlier attempt on Thursday was canceled due to a risk of lightning strikes.
Despite overcast skies, the rocket lifted off as scheduled at 09:14 local time (1214 GMT) on Friday, as guests including King Philip of Belgium watched from the Guiana Space Centre.
Just under half an hour later, the six-ton unmanned spacecraft separated from the rocket at an altitude of 1,500 kilometers (930 miles), which prompted a roar of applause in the center.
After a few tense minutes, ground control received the first signal from the spacecraft.
The sense of relief in the room was palpable.
“I was under a lot of stress. It was a roller coaster!” The director general of the European Space Agency (ESA), Josef Aschbacher, told AFP.
“I am extremely proud for Europe because JUICE is the largest mission of the decade and the most complex ever sent to Jupiter,” he added.
The spacecraft then successfully deployed its array of solar arrays, which cover a record 85 square meters (915 sq ft).
It will need all the energy it can get as it approaches Jupiter, where sunlight is 25 times dimmer than on Earth.
– ‘Working’ –
“That’s it. We’re good to go,” ESA’s JUICE project scientist Olivier Witasse told AFP.
It will take another 17 days for the spacecraft to deploy its antennas and three months for a final performance review, said ESA’s Nicolas Altobelli.
“Then we will begin the stage of interplanetary travel,” he added.
The Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) will take a long and winding path to the gas giant, which is 628 million kilometers from Earth.
It will use several gravitational boosts along the way, first making a flyby of Earth and the Moon, then zipping around Venus in 2025 before passing Earth again in 2029.
When the probe finally enters Jupiter’s orbit in July 2031, its 10 scientific instruments will analyze the largest planet in the Solar System and its three icy moons: Callisto, Europa and Ganymede.
Moons were first discovered by astronomer Galileo Galilei more than 400 years ago but were long ignored as potential candidates for hosting life.
However, the discovery of massive oceans of liquid water – the main ingredient for life as we know it – miles beneath their frozen shells has made Ganymede and Europa prime candidates for potentially harboring life in our celestial backyard.
JUICE will set its sights on Ganymede, the largest moon in the Solar System and the only one that has its own magnetic field, which protects it from radiation.
– ‘Extraordinary mission’ –
In 2034, JUICE will glide into Ganymede’s orbit, the first time a spacecraft has done so around a moon other than ours.
NASA’s Europa Clipper mission, scheduled to launch in October 2024, will focus on Ganymede’s sibling, Europa.
Neither mission will be able to directly detect the existence of alien life. Instead, they hope to establish whether the moons have the right conditions to harbor life.
Carole Larigauderie, JUICE project manager at French space agency CNES, pointed out that a form of mucus has been found in a lake under a glacier in Antarctica, showing that life can survive in such extreme environments.
“If JUICE can prove that Ganymede is habitable so that we can go and find out in the future that there is life, that would be fabulous,” he said.
The 1.6 billion euro ($1.75 billion) mission will mark the first time Europe has sent a spacecraft into the outer Solar System, beyond Mars.
“This is an extraordinary mission that shows what Europe is capable of,” said CNES head Philippe Baptiste.
Friday marked the penultimate launch of the Ariane 5 rocket before it is replaced by the next-generation Ariane 6.
Repeated delays for Ariane 6, as well as Russia withdrawing its Soyuz rockets in response to sanctions over war in Ukraine, have left Europe struggling to find ways to launch its missions into space.