NASA’s Juno mission will make the closest flyby of icy moon Europa next week

As the spacecraft approaches the moon, it is expected to provide important scientific data and images relevant to NASA’s next Europa Clipper mission.

On Thursday, September 29, at 2:36 a.m. PDT (5:36 a.m. EDT), NASA’s Juno spacecraft will come within 358 kilometers of the surface of Europa, Jupiter’s ice-covered moon. The solar-powered spacecraft is expected to produce some of the highest-resolution images ever of parts of Europa’s surface, as well as collect data on the moon’s interior, surface composition and the ionosphere and its interaction with the magnetosphere of Jupiter.

Such information could benefit future missions, such as europe clipper from the agency, which will launch in 2024 to study the icy moon. “Europa is such an intriguing Jovian moon that it’s the target of NASA’s future mission,” said Juno principal investigator Scott Bolton of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “We are pleased to provide data that can help the Europa Clipper team with mission planning, as well as facilitate new scientific insights into this icy body.”

In the extension time of the Juno mission, overflights to the moons Ganymede, Europa and Io have been planned. This graphic shows the spacecraft’s orbits of Jupiter, labeled “PJ” for perijove, or point of closest approach to the planet, from those made during its prime mission in gray, to the 42 orbits of the spacecraft time stretch. mission in shades of blue and purple.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI.

With an equatorial diameter of 3,100 kilometers, Europa is about 90% the size of Earth’s Moon. Scientists believe that a salty ocean lies beneath a layer of ice miles thick, raising questions about potential conditions capable of supporting life below Europa’s surface.

The closest flyby of the satellite will change Juno’s trajectory, reducing the time it takes to orbit Jupiter from 43 to 38 days. It will be the closest distance a NASA spacecraft has approached Europa since the time of the mission. Galileo which approached 351 kilometers on January 3, 2000.

In addition, this flyby will be the second encounter with a galilean moon during the extra time given to the mission. June explored ganymede in June 2021 and plans to approach Io in 2023 and 2024.

Data collection will begin one hour before closest approach, when the spacecraft is 83,397 kilometers from Europa.

“The relative speed between the spacecraft and the moon will be 23.6 kilometers per second, so we’re moving pretty fast,” said John Bordi, Juno deputy mission manager at JPL. “All steps must work like clockwork to get the planned data, because shortly after the flyby is complete, the spacecraft will need to reorient itself for the next approach to Jupiter, which will occur just 7.5 hours later.”

With Eyes on the Solar System you can know exactly where Juno is right now. With its three giant 20-meter wingspan blades spinning to keep the spacecraft stable as it makes elliptical orbits around Jupiter, the spacecraft can be considered a true marvel of dynamic engineering.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

The instrument and sensor cluster of the spacecraft will be activated for the rendezvous with Europa. Juno’s Jupiter Energetic Particle Detector (JEDI) instrument and its medium-gain (X-band) radio antenna will collect data on Europa’s ionosphere. Its Waves packages, Jovian Auroral Distributions Experiment (JADE) and Magnetometer (MAG), will measure plasma in the moon’s wake while Juno studies Europa’s interaction with Jupiter’s magnetosphere.

In addition, MAG and Waves will also search possible water plumes on the surface of Europe. “We have the right equipment to get the job done, but capturing a column will take a lot of luck,” Bolton said. “We have to be in the right place at the right time, but if we’re that lucky, it’s a hit for sure.”

Dentro y fuera

Juno’s microwave radiometer (MWR) will observe Europa’s water-ice crust and obtain data on its composition and temperature. This is the first time such data will be collected to study the moon’s icy crust.

The mission also hopes to take four visible-light images of the moon with JunoCam during the flyby. Juno’s science team will compare them with images from previous missions, looking for changes in Europa’s surface features that may have occurred in the past two decades. These visible light images will have an expected resolution greater than 1 kilometer per pixel.

Although Juno will be in Europa’s shadow when closest to the moon, Jupiter’s atmosphere will reflect enough sunlight for Juno’s visible-light cameras to collect data. Designed to take images of star fields and search for bright stars with known positions to help Juno orient itself, the mission’s star camera (called Stellar Reference Unit) will take a high-resolution black-and-white image of Europa’s surface. Meanwhile, the Jovian Infrared Auroral Mapper (JIRAM) will attempt to collect infrared images of the surface.

Close-up views of Juno and data from its MWR instrument will help shape the Europa Clipper mission, which will make nearly 50 flybys when it reaches Europa in 2030. Europa Clipper will collect data on the moon’s atmosphere, surface and interior , information that scientists will use to better understand Europa’s subterranean ocean, the thickness of its ice crust, and possible plumes that may be ejecting subsurface water into space.

Más información sobre la misión

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, California, manages the Juno mission for principal investigator Scott J. Bolton of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. Juno is part of NASA’s New Frontiers Program, which is managed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Lockheed Martin Space in Denver built and operates the spacecraft.

Original news (in English)

Edition: R. Castro.

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