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Jupiter’s icy moons: a promising location for extraterrestrial life?

By Oli Usher, on 11 July 2014

What Cassini did for the Saturn system in the 2000s, the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (or JUICE for short)  will do for Jupiter in the 2030s.

Artist's impression of JUICE in the Jupiter system. Credit: ESA (All Rights Reserved)

Artist’s impression of JUICE in the Jupiter system. Credit: ESA (All Rights Reserved)

The European Space Agency mission is currently being developed, with a 2022 launch planned. It will study Europa, Ganymede and Callisto, three of the largest moons in the Solar System. (Ganymede, which JUICE will orbit in 2032, is so big it is larger even than the planet Mercury).

Europa will be a particularly interesting target – the moon is covered by a thick crust of water ice, which may conceal an ocean of liquid water. If so, this could make it one of the most promising location in the Solar System for extraterrestrial life. It is thought that conditions below the ice could be similar to those in Antarctica’s Lake Vostok – a vast body of water that has remained totally covered by 4km of ice for millions of years, but which still harbours life.

UCL will provide detectors for JUICE’s scientific payload (in the form of the IRF-led Particle Environment Package) and will play scientific roles in the Imperial-designed J-MAG instrument, as well as the JANUS imager. It will also contribute more generally to the design of the craft.

As with Cassini, UCL’s contribution will focus largely on electromagnetic phenomena, including the interaction of Jupiter’s satellites with the Jupiter magnetosphere, and the effect of Jupiter on the moons’ atmospheres. The instrumentation will also play a key role in studying the oceans on Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.

UCL is hosting the Alfvén conference this week, in which experts in planetary magnetic fields and plasmas are coming together to discuss the latest news from missions including plans for JUICE.

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