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A NASA spacecraft flew past one of the most intriguing ocean worlds in our solar system on Thursday.
The Juno spacecraft, which has been orbiting Jupiter since 2016, made its closest approach to the moon Europa at 5:36 a.m. ET, flying less than 352 kilometers from its icy surface.
Juno has captured some of the highest resolution images ever taken of Europe’s ice shell. The first has already been transmitted to Earth and shows surface features in a region north of the moon’s equator called Annwn Regio.
“Due to the increased contrast between light and shadow seen along the terminator (the boundary on the dark side), features of the rugged terrain are readily visible, including large boulders casting shadows, while ridges and light and dark hollows curve over the surface,” a NASA statement said. “The oblong pit near the terminator could be a degraded impact crater.”
The spacecraft also collected data on the moon’s interior, where a salty ocean is thought to exist.
“It’s very early in the process, but by all indications Juno’s flyby of Europe was a great success,” Scott Bolton, Juno’s principal investigator at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, said in a statement.
“This first image is just a preview of the remarkable new science to come from Juno’s entire suite of instruments and sensors that acquired data as we flew past the moon’s icy crust.”
The shell of ice that makes up the moon’s surface is between 10 and 15 miles (16 and 24 kilometers) thick, and the ocean it likely sits on is estimated to be 40 to 100 miles (64 to 161 kilometers) depth.
Juno’s Microwave Radiometer instrument will study the ice crust to learn more about its temperature and composition. This is the first time this type of information will be collected on Europa’s frozen shell.
Data and images captured by Juno could help inform NASA’s Europa Clipper mission, which will launch in 2024 to perform a dedicated series of 50 flybys around the moon after arriving in 2030. Europa Clipper may be able to help scientists determine if the inner ocean exists and if the moon – one of many orbiting Jupiter – has the potential to be habitable for life.
Clipper will eventually drop from an altitude of 1,700 miles (2,735 kilometers) to just 16 miles (26 kilometers) above the moon’s surface. While Juno has largely focused on studying Jupiter, Clipper will focus on observing Europa.
“Europa is such an intriguing Jovian moon that it’s the focus of its own future NASA mission,” Bolton said. “We are pleased to provide data that may help the Europa Clipper team plan their mission, as well as provide new scientific insights into this frigid world.”
All of Juno’s instruments collected data during the flyby, including those that could measure the upper layers of Europa’s atmosphere and how Europa interacts with Jupiter’s magnetic field. The team hopes to spot a plume of water rising from cracks in the ice shell. Previous missions have seen plumes of water vapor shooting into space through the ice shell.
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“We have the right equipment to do the job, but to capture a plume it will take a lot of luck,” Bolton said. “We have to be in the right place at the right time, but if we’re so lucky it’s sure to be a home run.”
Juno is in the extended part of its mission, which was due to end in 2021. The spacecraft is now focused on flybys of some of Jupiter’s moons. The spacecraft visited Ganymede in 2021 and will zoom by Io in 2023 and 2024. Its mission is now expected to end in 2025.
The Europa maneuver shortened Juno’s orbit around Jupiter from 43 to 38 days.
The spacecraft’s flyby was fast, zipping past the moon at 52,920 miles per hour (85,167 kilometers per hour).
Europa is about 90% the size of Earth’s moon, and Juno’s flyby was the closest a NASA spacecraft has come since the Galileo mission passed in 2000.
“The science team will compare the full set of images obtained by Juno with images from previous missions, looking to see if Europa’s surface features have changed over the past two decades,” said Candy Hansen, co -juno investigator who leads planning for the JunoCam. camera at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, in a statement.
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