Rocket launches to Jupiter's moons in search of conditions for life

The rocket finally departed from Earth on Friday with high hopes of finding the conditions for life on Jupiter's moons, Ellie Pitt reports

A spacecraft bound for Jupiter's moons has blasted off in the hope of exploring if any life could be supported around the solar system's largest planet.

Juice, which stands for JUpiter ICy moons Explorer, will now begin the first hours of what is to become an eight-year journey.

The spacecraft launched on Friday will be the first ever to orbit a moon other than our own - Jupiter's largest moon Ganymede, as well as Europa and Callisto.

Watch the moment the Jupiter Icy moons Explorer rocket sets off

Professor Geraint Jones of University College London, who is a co-investigator on one of Juice’s 10 scientific instruments, said: "We are excited that the mission will shed new light on worlds that could potentially host life."

The launch was initially meant to happen on Thursday but was delayed by the European Space Agency (ESA) due to the risk of lightning.

What's the point of this mission?

Scientists hope that Juice will be able to improve their understanding as to whether any of Jupiter's three ocean-bearing moons can support life.

They plan to gain information by utilising ten instruments built into the spacecraft, including one which was developed by experts from Imperial College London.

European Space Agency’s project scientist, Olivier Witasse said: "We are not going to detect life with Juice."

The instrument, known as J-MAG, will measure the characteristics of the magnetic fields of Jupiter and its largest moon, Ganymede.

In addition, the magnetometer will play a key role in detecting moving salts in the oceans beneath the icy crusts of the three moons.

The data will help characterise the depth and salt content of Ganymede's ocean, to see if it may hold the conditions for life.

The project by the European Space Agency (ESA) has been years in the planning and involved universities and governments across Europe.

ESA teams, collaborating with experts from the University of Leicester, will interpret the data sent back by the satellite in order to understand the atmosphere of the moons.

An image of what Juice will look like on the approach to Jupiter. Credit: The European Space Agency

What dangers will the craft face?

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.

Late next year, NASA will send an even more heavily shielded spacecraft to Jupiter, the Europa Clipper, which will beat Juice to Jupiter by more than a year because it will launch on SpaceX’s mightier rocket.

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