ESA will soon launch first-ever probe to orbit another planet's moon

The European Space Agency's JUICE mission, set to launch next week, will orbit Jupiter's largest moon, Ganymede.
Chris Young
An artist's impression of the JUICE probe.
An artist's impression of the JUICE probe.


The European Space Agency (ESA) will launch its first Jupiter probe mission in just a few days' time.

The Jupiter ICy Moons Explorer (JUICE) mission is scheduled to lift off at 8:15 am EDT (1215 GMT) on April 13 from Europe's Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.

It will launch atop one of the last of Arianespace's Ariane 5 rockets, as the European rocket firm is aiming to debut its heavy-lift Ariane 6 rocket later this year.

A long journey awaits ESA's JUICE probe

Once it reaches its destination, ESA's JUICE mission will insert itself into Jupiter's orbit to explore the gas giant and its icy moons Europa, Callisto, and Ganymede.

Firstly, it will have to travel through deep space for seven years and perform gravity-assist maneuvers around Earth and Venus to help it on its way.

If all goes to plan, the 6.6-ton (6 metric tons) solar-powered JUICE probe will arrive at Jupiter in 2031. Once there, it will spend roughly four years studying the previously mentioned moons, which comprise three of Jupiter's four Galilean moons.

Today, Jupiter has 92 known moons, though the Galilean moons were the first four discovered by Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei in 1610. Their discovery played a crucial role in our understanding of the universe. They led Galileo to realize that not every cosmic object revolves around Earth — meaning Earth isn't at the center of the universe.

In 2035, JUICE will alter its trajectory to enter into the orbit of Jupiter's largest moon, Ganymede. This will make it the first space mission to orbit a moon that is not the Earth's.

NASA will soon send another probe to Jupiter

In a mission description, ESA officials wrote that the JUICE probe will "characterize these moons as both planetary objects and possible habitats, [as well as] explore Jupiter's complex environment in depth and study the wider Jupiter system as an archetype for gas giants across the universe."

There is no shortage of Jupiter-related space operations in the coming months and years. A NASA probe, Juno, is currently orbiting Jupiter, and it recently took the highest-resolution image ever captured of the icy moon Europa. Another NASA Jupiter mission, called Europa Clipper, is expected to launch fairly soon after JUICE. Europa is scheduled to launch atop a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket in October 2024.

Scientists are targeting the moons of Jupiter and Europa in particular because they may hold massive oceans under their icy surfaces that could harbor microbial extraterrestrial life. Jupiter, meanwhile, has played a vital role in the evolution of life on Earth, and scientists aim to shed new light on the planet to help us better understand planetary evolution throughout the cosmos.

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