The European Space Agency’s JUICE spacecraft lifts off on Thursday, entering a new phase in the search for extraterrestrial life.
The Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer launches aboard the Ariane 5 rocket from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana.
JUICE will make detailed observations of the giant gas planet and its three ocean-bearing moons, including Ganymede, Callisto and Europa.
It is fitted with a suite of remote sensing, geophysical and in situ instruments, including one led by NASA.
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The mission will characterize the moons as planetary objects and as possible habitats for past or present life, exploring Jupiter’s magnetic, radiation and plasma environment in detail, and studying the wider system as an archetype for gas giants across the universe.
In the two-plus weeks after the launch, JUICE will deploy its antennas and instrument booms, followed by an intense three-month commissioning of its scientific instruments.
The first of four gravity-assisted flybys in the inner solar system will take place in August 2024.
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It has an eight-year cruise to Jupiter, passing by Earth and Venus before its arrival in July 2031.
JUICE will make 35 flybys of the three large moons while orbiting Jupiter, before changing orbits to Ganymede.
It will be the first spacecraft to ever orbit a moon in the outer solar system. Ganymede, which is being studied in particular, is the largest and most massive moon in the solar system.
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JUICE’s flyby of the Earth-moon system, known as a Lunar-Earth gravity assist, is also a world first and will help save propellant.
Notably, NASA’s Juno mission completed its 50th close pass by Jupiter on April 8.
Flight VA 260 will be the final Ariane 5 flight to carry a European Space Agency mission to space.