On Thursday, NASA launched a spacecraft to fly past one of our solar system’s most mind-bending ocean worlds.
Dubbed the Juno spacecraft, it has been flying around Jupiter since 2016 and made its closest approach yet to Europa at 5:36 a.m. ET, passing within 222 miles of its icy exterior.
As a result, Juno will photograph some of the most transparent images ever taken of Europa’s icy exterior. The space vehicle also is expected to collect data about the moon’s interior. Here, scientists believe a salty ocean exists.
The ice shell that is the moon’s surface is between 10 and 15 miles thick. The ocean is estimated to plunge 40 to 100 miles deep.
Later, Juno’s Microwave Radiometer instrument will examine the ice mantle to learn more about its temperature and elements. In addition, this marks the first time NASA has collected this kind of information about Europa’s frozen armor.
Juno’s new images could help NASA’s Europa Clipper mission, which is set to deploy in 2024 to complete 50 flybys around the moon after it arrives in 2030.
Europa Clipper may also help researchers conclude whether the interior ocean exists and if the moon could sustain life.
Clipper will eventually move from an altitude of 1,700 miles to 16 miles above the moon’s surface. While Juno primarily focuses on Jupiter, Clipper will observe Europa.
“Europa is such an intriguing Jovian moon. It is the focus of its own future NASA mission,” said Scott Bolton, Juno principal investigator.
He added: “We’re happy to provide data that may help the Europa Clipper team with mission planning, as well as provide new scientific insights into this icy world.”
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In addition, Juno’s tools will collect data during the flyby, including those that can study the top layers of Europa’s atmosphere. It will also study how it works with Jupiter’s magnetic field.
The team also hopes to find a water plume from cracks in the ice shell. Previous missions have shown water vapor erupting into space through the ice shell.
“We have the right equipment to do the job, but to capture a plume will require a lot of luck,” Bolton said. “We have to be at the right place at just the right time, but if we are so fortunate, it’s a home run for sure.”
Scientists can compare photographs taken of Europa images taken by previous launches to see how the moon’s surface changed.
According to scientists, Europa is about 90% of the size of Earth’s moon. Juno’s mission will be the closest a NASA spacecraft has come to it since the Galileo mission flew past 22 years ago in 2000.