A Close Look at Europe... I Mean Europa

Ethan Wong

September 28, 2022 (Special Publishing Date, Not Part of Regular Edition)

NASA’s Juno space probe will take a short flyby toward the icy moon, Europa, which orbits the largest planet in our solar system. This week at 2:36 am Pacific Time, Thursday the 29th of September, Juno is expected to take a detour drifting by the moon, taking extremely detailed and colored images of the surface. During this close-up opportunity, NASA hopes to further analyze how the moon interacts with the magnetosphere of Jupiter, and also observe the temperature, atmosphere, internal composition, and surface of this icy moon.

Juno will use its Microwave Radiometer to better understand the composition and temperature of the moon by equipping the spacecraft to detect thermal emissions and help peer through the ice in search of evidence of biological life. Europa has already been captured by both Voyager spacecraft and Galileo, which will allow NASA to compare images of Europa’s surface, while Juno’s Infrared Auroral Mapper will be utilized to collect infrared pictures of the moon’s icy shell. Scientists have always hypothesized that an ocean of salt water lay beneath the surface of the ice that makes up Europa. This flyby will be the closest that a space probe has flown by Europe since Galileo did in 2020. Juno’s flyby will also be capable of observing theories about Europa, such as the liquid geysers on the moon: Hubble Space Telescope captured plumes of hydrogen and oxygen from the surface, yet NASA doesn’t have strong evidence to claim the theory true, and the chances of a geyser occurring during Juno’s flyby is rare. 

Launched on August 5th, 2011, the Juno probe left the Earth’s atmosphere aboard an Atlas V 551 rocket into the dark abyss of space to begin its 5-year journey to the gas giant Jupiter. The probe itself was powered by an RD-180 engine using RP-1 kerosene and liquid oxygen (LOX). The space probe would need to use Earth’s gravity to assist its pathway toward the planet, as there wasn’t a launch vehicle capable of helping the spacecraft reach Jupiter. 

After taking the gravitational slingshot from Earth, the space probe would be on track to flyby Jupiter regardless of its powerful orbit, which meant that Juno would have to perform maneuvers to enter the orbit. After traveling 1740 million miles, the probe finally reached Jupiter on July 4th, 2016. 178 days before reaching Jupiter, however, the spacecraft fired up its main engine and performed an Orbit Insertion Maneuver to essentially allow the Juno into Jupiter’s polar orbit where it still travels along today, gathering more information about the largest planet in our Solar System. This new orbit would allow Juno to study the planet in a 53-day orbit until October 19th, when NASA decided to fire up the engine again and change the orbit trajectory to gain a closer look at the magnetic fields and gravity of Jupiter. NASA then started to target the moons of Jupiter for further study: Juno started to study Ganymede and flew by the moon at a distance of 645 miles from the surface. Now, it plans to study Europa, diving further down to a mere 220 miles to observe possible indicators of biological life.