Could Jupiter’s icy moons support life? Mission to Jupiter set to launch on April 13

Assistant Professor Ali Sulaiman of the School of Physics and Astronomy is part of the magnetometer instrument team that will study the icy moons of Jupiter. The European Space Agency’s flagship mission, the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE), will begin its eight-year voyage to the Solar System’s largest planet on April 13. The goals of JUICE are to characterize the ocean-bearing Galilean moons as possible habitats and explore Jupiter’s system as an archetype for gas giants across the Universe. The possibility of liquid water in the moons of the outer Solar System has ushered in a new era of the search for life. Liquid water was once thought to exist only close to the Sun, but now we know the Sun’s heat is not the only source of energy to keep water in liquid form. The Galilean moons experience strong tidal forces in their orbits that generate enough heat via friction to keep water beneath their surfaces in liquid form.

JUICE will make multiple flybys of Callisto and Europa, and ultimately go into an unprecedented orbit around a moon other than our own, Ganymede. Each of these moons is unique in its own right. Ganymede is the only moon in the Solar System known to generate its own permanent magnetic field by dynamo action and is believed to contain more water than all the Earth’s oceans combined. Europa is thought to have plumes of water ejecting through cracks in its icy surface.

Sulaiman is a member of the magnetic field science investigation (J-MAG) on JUICE. The magnetometers, led by Imperial College London, will withstand the extreme temperatures and hostile radiation of Jupiter’s environment to measure magnetic fields five million times weaker than the Earth’s. These measurements are critical to characterizing the subsurface oceans of the Galilean moons. These oceans are salty, and therefore conductive. As they flow, they generate magnetic fields which can be picked up by the sensitive magnetometers.

On April 13, JUICE is scheduled to launch on an Arianne 5 rocket in ESA’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guyana. The spacecraft will undertake a series of gravity assists via Venus and Earth before it is swung outwards to Jupiter. JUICE is expected to go into orbit around Jupiter in 2031 and finally around Ganymede in 2034.