NASA’s Juno spacecraft, which orbits Jupiter, made the closest flyby to Jupiter’s elusive moon Europa in over twenty years. Initially launched in 2011 for a 5-year mission, Juno’s lifespan has been extended as it continues to make groundbreaking observations about Jupiter’s atmosphere and interior. On Thursday, Juno flew past Europa at a distance of 219 miles, capturing four different photos of its icy surface.
Why is Europa such a big deal? Among 800 other discovered moons orbiting Jupiter, Europa gains much of the limelight in the scientific community for its large deposits of water. Scientists believe that underneath 10 to 15 miles of ice, there could be up to 100 miles of liquid water hidden under Europa’s crust. Despite being tiny compared to Earth, Europa has vastly more ocean than our planet.
During Juno’s flyover, scientists were looking for plumes of water shooting up from the crust of Europa, which would indicate that it is possible to take samples from the sky. Unfortunately, none were visible. “We have to be at the right place at just the right time,” Juno’s chief scientist, Scott Bolton of Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, stated. Juno’s speed when taking photos of the planet was estimated at 15 miles per second.
When there is water on a planet, astrobiologists, or those who study potential life forms on other planets, get hopeful. Organisms have been able to survive in extreme temperatures underwater on Earth, such as near deep-sea volcanoes. However, it is not yet known if there are energy sources present on Europa that could sustain life.
NASA’s Europa Clipper mission, set to begin in 2024, will send another spacecraft into Jupiter’s orbit to monitor Europa. This spacecraft will be better equipped to handle radiation and other factors and will contain more equipment to observe Europa during flyovers. The craft will use radar and thermal imaging systems to finally see if liquid water is present on the planet.