PARIS — NASA’s Juno probe is poised for a close flyby of Jupiter’s icy moon Europa on Thursday (September 29) that could potentially provide tremendous new insights into Europa’s crust and interior.
Juno will capture detailed imagery and other data as it approaches as close as 220 miles (355 kilometers) to the surface Europe, riddled with cracks along its icy exterior. The visit follows a 2000 flyby by the Galileo spacecraftand scientists hope that comparing the images captured by the two probes could be very revealing.
“We know that Europa is a dynamic geological body,” Michel Blanc, a co-investigator on the Juno mission, told Space.com at the International Astronautical Congress in Paris. “There is a kind of ice sheet tectonics on the surface. One thing that will be really interesting to see is whether the blocks of ice have moved between the two flybys. That would be a fantastic result in itself because it would show that what is really at stake is the ice sheet – it is dynamic and moving.”
Related: Jupiter’s Ganymede, the largest moon in the solar system, looks amazing in these first photos of NASA’s epic Juno flyby
Europa is about 1,940 miles (3,100 km) wide, about 90% the size of Earth’s Moon. Scientists believe Europa harbors a global ocean beneath its icy exterior, kept fluid by the forces exerted on it Jupiter and the other large Galilean moons nearby, Ganymede and Io.
Another intriguing possibility would be to find evidence of water plumes erupting from the cracks on Europa’s surface. But Juno had to be lucky to come by at just the right time.
Feathers have been “discovered a couple of times in history,” Blanc said, also by the Hubble Space Telescope. Scientists also re-analyzed the data from the Galileo mission and this time discovered the cloud plumes. Saturn’s ice-covered moon Enceladus is known to have much more frequent, more prominent features water flags from its south pole.
Juno is designed primarily to study Jupiter’s interior, but all of the spacecraft’s instrumentation and sensor suite will be online to gather as much information about Europa as possible. And the flyby could lead to new insights into the unseen depths of Europe. Europe’s global ocean means the moon is considered a prime candidate in the search for extraterrestrial life in the solar system.
“What will be really interesting to increase our knowledge is the determination of each signal related to determining the properties of the ocean,” Blanc said.
Juno’s magnetometer and radio wave experiment will probe Europa’s internal structure via the moon’s gravitational fields. “Thus, by combining magnetic and gravimetric data, even with one pass you can improve concepts for determining the properties of an ocean, especially at a distance of almost 300 kilometers [190 miles] high pass,” he added.
Juno will also measure plasma in the Moon’s wake as Juno studies Europa’s interaction with Jupiter’s magnetosphere, and the spacecraft will look for ultraviolet emissions from Europa’s thin atmosphere as it flies over Europa’s night side.
The flyby is part of the expanded mission objectives approved in 2021. Juno was launched in 2011 and reached Jupiter in 2016. Juno is in a highly elliptical orbit around Jupiter’s poles, approaching the giant planet and then receding with each distant orbit early in the mission, which lasts about 53 days .
But Jupiter’s strong gravitational field pulls Juno closer to the planet in each orbit. That means today’s flyby will be Juno’s only chance to get close to Europa before the spacecraft’s orbital period is reduced from 43 to 38 days.
However, Juno will get two opportunities to make flybys of the volcanically active moon yes – in December 2023 and January 2024 – as the spacecraft gradually approaches. The spaceship also made a Flyby of the massive moon Ganymede in March 2021, revealing auroras and huge unknown craters.
The data from Juno’s Europa flyby will also be very valuable for another upcoming mission. NASA’s Europe clippers The mission is scheduled to launch in 2024 and reach the Jovian system in 2030 to study the moon in detail.
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