Europe is about to launch its biggest space project …but we won’t know much for the next 10 years

The European Space Agency’s Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) has been confirmed for launch from the agency’s spaceport in French Guiana in April 2023.

The mission will explore the large, frigid worlds that orbit Jupiter, Ganymede, Callisto and Europa.

It marks Europe’s biggest space venture yet, spanning a decade of precise monitoring and calculations to send the JUICE spacecraft into orbit not only around three large moons, but also the largest planet in the solar system.

The mission won’t arrive at Jupiter for eight years.

Once launched on the Ariane 5 rocket, JUICE will perform several flybys of the Earth, the Moon and Venus to sling the craft towards Jupiter.

It will arrive at the gas giant midway through 2031 where it will begin 35 flybys of the three moons and then eventually swoop in on Ganymede – the largest of Jupiter’s satellites – in a final attempt to peer beneath the surface and study whether it could support simple lifeforms.

Its final act will be to plummet into Ganymede at the end of 2035.

JUICE’s ‘handlers’ at the European Space Agency will monitor the craft’s voyage using an expansive network of deep space antennas across Europe, Australia and South America controlled from its space operations centre in Germany.

Final tests completes

Ahead of the spacecraft’s shift from France to its French Guianan launchpad in February, mission controllers completed three final checks to certify the vehicle for take-off.

These included a thermal vacuum test to verify the ship’s ability to withstand the extreme temperatures imposed by space travel, as well as a validation of its systems – ensuring it will successfully unfold after being released from the Ariane 5 and commencing its in-space mission.

As well as this, the ESA has finalised risk simulations to ensure the JUICE team can troubleshoot problems if they emerge.

“This is the biggest deep-space mission we’ve ever launched, and it needs to nimbly orbit the moons of the largest planet in the Solar System using no less than 35 flybys,” says JUICE’s flight operations director Andrea Accomazzo.

“JUICE’s exploration of Jupiter and its moons will require us to perform a decade of operations we’ve never done before, and a lot could go wrong.

“In these weeks of simulations, we’ll have every possible problem thrown at us, so that we can handle any situation in space.”

Galilean tribute on board

Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei was the first person to identify Jupiter’s four largest moons orbiting their planet in 1610.

This led to his correct theory that, rather than the heavens revolving around the Earth, celestial bodies instead circle larger ones: the four moons around Jupiter, and planets around the sun.

In tribute to his discovery, the ESA has inaugurated a plaque on the JUICE spacecraft, reproducing pages of Galileo’s observations in his pamphlet Sidereus Nuncius, where he first published his observations and turned human understanding of the universe on its head.

Juice's galileo tribute plaque
JUICE’s galileo tribute plaque. Credit: ESA – M. Pédoussaut

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