A European spacecraft is all set to go to Jupiter in a mission to explore whether its ocean-bearing moons can support life.
The six-tonne probe, named Juice (Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer), will be heading towards the solar system’s biggest planet carrying 10 scientific instruments, in what is the European Space Agency’s (ESA) biggest deep-space mission yet.
Juice will lift off on an Ariane 5 rocket on Thursday at 1.15pm UK time from the European spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.
Justin Byrne, head of science for Airbus and the mission’s lead contractor, told the PA news agency: “After more than 10 years developing this pioneering spacecraft, we’re all going to be crossing our fingers that things go smoothly and that this amazing mission will finally be on its way.”
Then it will embark on a 4.1 billion-mile journey that will take more than eight years.
Scientists from Imperial College London have led the development of one instrument, known as the magnetometer.
Called J-MAG, it will measure the characteristics of magnetic fields of Jupiter and Ganymede – the only moon known to produce its own magnetic field.
Dr Caroline Harper, head of space science at the UK Space Agency, told PA: “The launch of Juice marks years of hard work and collaboration by scientists, engineers and space agencies all over the world, but the journey is far from over.
“We look forward to following the spacecraft as it makes its eight-year trip to Jupiter and then as it studies the planet and its moons, using specialised UK-developed science instruments.
“We have a large community of research experts in the UK who are eagerly awaiting the data that Juice will provide.
“With this information we hope to discover more about the nature of gas giants in space, and their icy moons, bringing us another step closer to understanding the evolution of the universe.”
At its destination, the spacecraft will spend at least three years making detailed studies of the planet and three of its largest moons, Ganymede, Europa and Callisto.
Engineers and mission controllers have a very short launch window to send the spacecraft on its journey.
This is because Venus and Earth need to be in the perfect position for Juice to perform a manoeuvre known as gravitational assist, where it will use the gravity of these planets to slingshot towards Jupiter.
He told PA: “We have to use planets, Earth and Venus, just to get to Jupiter.
“We will minimise the amount of fuel we need to use by using gravitational support.”
However, if the first window is missed Mr Byrne said there will be more opportunities in April, and then later in August.
Juice is not equipped to search for signs of life but its aim is to explore the conditions that could support life.
But scientists are more interested in Ganymede, Jupiter’s largest moon, which is thought to have a salty ocean beneath its icy shell.
One of Juice’s key goals is to explore this body of water and determine whether this world may be habitable.
Data gathered from the J-MAG instrument will help characterise the depth and salt content of Ganymede’s ocean.
Dr Harper told the BBC’s Today programme: “Where there’s water, there is the potential for life.
“And now we need to go and have a dedicated up-close survey to confirm whether that saltwater ocean exists and then to assess whether the conditions for life could exist under the ice.”
Juice has been built to withstand harsh radiation and extreme conditions, ranging from 250C around Venus to minus 230C near Jupiter.
Sensitive electronics are protected inside a pair of lead-lined vaults within the body of the spacecraft.
If all goes well, Juice should reach Jupiter in July 2031 and will have enough fuel to make 35 flybys of the icy moons before orbiting Ganymede from December 2034.
Once the spacecraft runs out of fuel, Juice will perform a controlled crash into Ganymede, marking the end of the £14 billion mission.
Dr Harper told the BBC’s Today: “We’ve done everything we can everything’s been tested and retested and then tested again, to assure us that it will all work.
“But it’s a very ambitious mission and we’ll be very glad when in eight years’ time, we finally start downloading data.”