Is there a world out there beyond Earth that could have supported life in the past or have conditions in the future? There are 5,000 potential candidates but the closest one is over 700 million kilometers away. Europa, a moon around Jupiter, is said to be home to oceans that are deeper and bigger than Earth.
The Juno spacecraft is about to make its closest approach to this frigid world at the end of this month, and the exciting bit is the new imagery that will be beamed back to Earth following the close approach.
The imagery will be critical to understanding the lunar ice giant, where Nasa is planning to send a dedicated mission. The Europa Clipper mission to the Jovian moon will launch in 2024.
The Juno spacecraft will perform its closest flyby to Europa on September 29, going as close as just 350 kilometers above the surface of the planet as it observes the moon’s magnetic field and the icy crust.
The last spacecraft to get this close to Europa was over two decades ago, in 2000, when the Galileo Orbiter hovered at a distance of 351 kilometers from the surface. However, Juno will go beyond and observe an area that has not been seen by Galileo.
The imagery sent by Juno will be critical to understand the lunar ice giant. (Photo: Nasa)
The spacecraft will have all its instruments turned on, including the JunoCam, which will take a single, very high-resolution picture of a small patch of Europa’s nightside. The region will be lit by light from Jupiter’s cloud tops.
Meanwhile, the microwave radiometer will try and penetrate through the icy shells and look under the surface.
Astronomers have in the past said that the frozen world of Europa resembles that of Greenland and could be capable of harbouring life. Scientists have explored similarities between elongated landforms called double ridges that look like huge gashes across Europa’s surface and a smaller version in Greenland examined using ice-penetrating radar.
In the search for extraterrestrial life, Europa has attracted attention as one of the locales in our solar system that may be habitable, perhaps by microbes, owing to a global saltwater ocean detected deep beneath its ice shell.
With a diameter of 1,940 miles (3,100 km), Europa is the fourth-largest of Jupiter’s 79 known moons, a bit smaller than Earth’s moon but bigger than the dwarf planet Pluto. Europa’s ocean may contain double the water of those on Earth. Life first emerged on Earth as marine microbes.
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