On September 29, the Juno spacecraft will fly over Jupiter’s moon Europa, just 355 km from its surface. During the pass, it will be able to observe a wide part of the moon’s surface with its cameras, starting a mission focused on searching for pockets of water under the frozen crust that covers this moon and investigating some of its features.
Juno arrived at Jupiter in 2016 through a mission initially focused on studies of the planet’s atmosphere and magnetic field. As early as 2021, NASA extended the probe’s mission, directing it to study some of the Jovian moons. She has already visited Ganymede, the largest moon in the Solar System, and now it will be Europa’s turn.
Scott Bolton, Juno’s principal investigator, describes the visit as a “reconnaissance mission” for the future Europa Clipper mission, which will study Europa’s habitability. “But even so, we are going to do great scientific work on Europa,” he added. One of the essential “pieces” of this work will be the MWR instrument, a microwave radiometer designed to study what lies beneath Jupiter’s clouds.
The MWR can detect thermal emissions, and the team plans to use it to study the moon’s ice. “Now that we’re looking at the moons for our extended mission, it’s become obvious that the microwave radiometer works incredibly well on icy bodies and gas giants, so I believe it will be of great use in future planetary exploration,” he said.
In addition, Juno can take advantage of the visit to investigate water geysers in Europa, whose origin remains uncertain. In 2021, scientists identified enough steam emissions to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool in minutes, but they’re not sure how the steam got there. For Bolton, Juno will need a little luck to be “in the right place at the right time” as they vent their steam.
If it doesn’t see any water plumes in action, the probe could then try to find geological formations on Europa’s surface that emit steam. The flyby will also allow Juno to observe the moon’s poles for the first time; as it moves around Jupiter in a polar orbit, this will be the only opportunity to get close to Europa.
Juno’s extended mission is expected to last until 2025 at the earliest. Afterwards, mission scientists will need to analyze whether it still has enough propellant to keep its antenna facing Earth, and is still in good shape to maintain operations. However, a major obstacle to this is radiation: each time it makes its closest approach to Jupiter, the probe receives large amounts of radiation from particles in the planet’s magnetosphere.
Of course, she is not unprotected, and has shields to resist radiation. “But eventually, our shields might not hold up anymore, and the radiation will start to damage her electronic systems,” Bolton warned. “I imagine that NASA would appreciate a new extension [da missão]if the ship is healthy,” he suggested.
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