JUICE is loose: European space probe embarks for Jupiter's icy moons

JUICE, short for Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer, will study three of the planet’s largest moons and the massive oceans buried beneath their surfaces.

An Ariane rocket carrying the robotic explorer Juice takes off from Europe's Spaceport in French Guiana.
An Ariane rocket carrying the robotic explorer Juice takes off from Europe's Spaceport in French Guiana.
ESA via AP

The European Space Agency successfully launched its JUICE space probe Friday on a decade-long mission to explore three of Jupiter's icy moons.

The launch, which was delayed one day due to inclement weather, marks the beginning of an ambitious journey that will span four billion miles.

JUICE, short for Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer, is beginning its eight-year cruise with four gravity-assisted flybys of Earth and Venus to slingshot the spacecraft into the outer solar system.

"ESA, with its international partners, is on its way to Jupiter," says ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher. "JUICE's spectacular launch carries with it the vision and ambition of those who conceived the mission decades ago, the skill and passion of everyone who has built this incredible machine, the drive of our flight operations team, and the curiosity of the global science community. Together, we will keep pushing the boundaries of science and exploration in order to answer humankind's biggest questions."

European Space Agency

JUICE is scheduled to arrive at Jupiter in 2031, where it will scope out our solar system's largest planet and three of its most intriguing moons.

It will make close passes of Ganymede, Europa and Callisto, where it will investigate oceans — both the ones we know about on Ganymede and Europa, and the ones we think are hiding under the battered surface of Callisto. 

"We will guide JUICE through 35 flybys of Jupiter's ocean moons in order to gather the data needed to bring scientists closer than ever to these compelling destinations," says Ignacio Tanco, ESA's Juice spacecraft operations manager.

JUICE will spend about three years studying the moons before attempting to enter orbit around Ganymede in 2034. No spacecraft has ever orbited a moon other than our own.

If enough fuel remains, flight operators hope to circle Ganymede for about a year before sending the spacecraft crashing to the surface in 2035.

While JUICE isn't designed to hunt for alien life, Carole Mundell, ESA's Director of Science said its groundbreaking instruments will give us an "exquisite close-up view" of the secret ocean worlds.

"The treasure trove of data that ESA JUICE will provide will enable the science community worldwide to dig in and uncover the mysteries of the Jovian system, explore the nature and habitability of oceans on other worlds and answer questions yet unasked by future generations of scientists," she said.

A meteor from the Lyrids seen over Germany in 2019.

See the Lyrid meteor shower streak across the night sky

The annual Lyrid meteor shower begins April 15.