European Space Agency fixes $1.1 billion Jupiter probe's antenna problem

Europe's JUICE spacecraft will now be able to probe deep beneath the surfaces of Jupiter's icy moons.
Chris Young
An artist's impression of the JUICE spacecraft.
An artist's impression of the JUICE spacecraft.

ESA / ATG Medialab 

The European Space Agency (ESA) announced that it finally fixed its $1.1 billion (€870 million) Jupiter probe's antenna.

Things were touch and go for a while with the Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer (JUICE) probe's Radar for Icy Moons Exploration (RIME) antenna.

JUICE launched from Europe's Spaceport in French Guiana on April 14. Not long after, we reported that the probe was experiencing difficulties deploying a key instrument, the RIME antenna, in deep space. Now, ESA has announced that on May 12, it was able to fix the problem and set RIME free.

The JUICE probe's RIME antenna will investigate Jupiter moons' habitability

Problems arose early on in the JUICE probe's years-long mission when ESA announced that the RIME antenna's 52-foot-long (16 m) boom became stuck during deployment.

Though ESA stressed that the RIME antenna is only one of JUICE's many scientific instruments, it is an important part of the agency's mission, which is set to send the first probe to orbit another planet's moon. JUICE will eventually orbit Jupiter's icy moon Ganymede. First, though, it will travel through deep space for eight years before reaching Jupiter.

One JUICE arrives in the Jupiter system in July 2031, "it will use RIME to study the surface and subsurface structure of Jupiter's icy moons down to a depth of 9 km [5.6 miles]," ESA explained in a recent press statement. "RIME is one of 10 instruments on board JUICE set to investigate the emergence of habitable worlds around gas giants and the formation of our solar system."

ESA's RIME antenna is set free

Shortly after the RIME issue arose, ESA announced that it suspected a tiny stuck pin on the 2.67-ton (2.42 metric tonnes) spacecraft was causing the problem.

The agency tried several tricks to loosen the pin, including vibrating JUICE using its thrusters and also changing the orientation of the spacecraft so the pin would be warmed by sunlight.

The key to freeing the pin, however, came in the form of a tiny shock delivered by another of JUICE's instruments. As ESA points out, success came "when the flight control team fired a mechanical device called a 'non-explosive actuator' (NEA), located in the jammed bracket."

"This delivered a shock that moved the pin by a matter of millimeters and allowed the antenna to unfold," they explained.

Last month, JUICE captured images of Earth from space, showing that its monitoring cameras are working as intended. Now, RIME is also operational, and JUICE is on course to make history in the coming years. Crucially, it is one of several missions that could help to uncover whether Jupiter's moons are capable of harboring alien life.

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