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Humanity Just Got Its Closest View of Europa in Over 20 Years, And We Can’t Stop Looking

It has been more than 20 years since mankind has had such a close look at the frozen globe.

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On Thursday morning, the Juno spacecraft from NASA approached the frozen surface of Europa, a huge moon that circles Jupiter. The distance between them was within 219 miles.

It has been more than 20 years since mankind has had such a close look at the frozen globe.

Jupiter is the biggest planet in the solar system, and its study was the primary objective of the Juno mission, which began in 2011.

Jupiter's moon Europa close up
Raw image of Europa by NASA’s Juno spacecraft, on September 29, 2022. (NASA/SwRI/MSSS)

The Juno spacecraft was utilized by the Juno crew to gather information on Jupiter’s moons, including as Europa, Ganymede, and Io, after the successful completion of its original mission in 2021.

Juno made a number of significant discoveries about Europa during its flyby on Thursday, including the capture of high-resolution photos of the moon’s surface. The Galileo spacecraft, which was operated by NASA, was the final one to fly past Europa in the year 2000.

First new image of Europa
The first image of Europa from Juno’s close flyby on 29 September 2022. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SWRI/MSSS)

This first picture is just a glimpse of the remarkable new science to come from Juno’s entire suite of instruments and sensors that acquired data as we skimmed over the moon‘s icy crust,” Scott Bolton, Juno principal investigator, said in a press release.

On Thursday afternoon, the first raw photographs from Juno’s near approach to Europa began to be sent back to Earth.

The recent photographs, in conjunction with those that were acquired by the Galileo mission many years ago, reveal essential new information about the frozen globe.

The spacecraft made its closest approach to Europa at 5:36 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, flying about 219 miles above the surface of the moon.

Even though Juno was in Europa’s shadow, the sunlight that reflected off of Jupiter gave sufficient light for the camera on the probe to take photographs.

A photograph of Europa acquired by the Galileo spacecraft that seems to show the planet in its true colors may be seen on the left. Raw photos of Europa, captured by Juno, may be seen on the right. (NASA/JPL/DLR/SwRI/MSSS)

This picture of Europa, which was captured by Galileo in 1997 and seems to be in its natural color, is seen above on the left and demonstrates the incredible variety of geology that can be found on Europa’s surface.

The raw picture seen to the right was captured by the Juno spacecraft on September 29 and looks toward Europa. On the surface of the moon, both photos show extensive fissures and ridges that run in linear patterns.

After the new photographs have been processed, the researchers expect that by comparing them to images of Europa taken during earlier missions, they will be able to determine how the frozen moon has evolved over the last few decades.

“The science team will be comparing 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,” Candy Hansen, a Juno co-investigator who leads planning for JunoCam, the probe’s visible light camera, said in a press release.

“The JunoCam images will fill in the current geologic map, replacing existing low-resolution coverage of the area.”

It is believed that the ice shell around Europa is between 10 and 15 miles in thickness.

Astronomers are of the opinion that a salty ocean with depths ranging from 40 to 100 miles lies concealed under the heavy ice that covers the planet. Given that liquid water is one of the necessary elements for all living beings, this is a significant development in our hunt for life beyond the Earth.

According to NASA, Juno is equipped with sophisticated equipment that enable it to peek under Europa’s ice shell in order to collect data on the composition of Europa as well as its temperature.

Galileo captured this photograph of Europa’s surface in 1997 and later colorized it. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute)

Cracks can be seen running over Europa’s ice shell in the above close-up picture that was captured by the Galileo spacecraft in 1997. 

In earlier explorations, plumes of water vapor were seen exploding through the icy exterior of the planet. The Juno crew is currently analyzing the photographs from the flyby that occurred on Thursday, but scientists are hopeful that they were able to detect plumes blasting from Europa’s surface.

The information obtained by Juno during the flyby might be used to inspire future missions, such as NASA’s Europa Clipper probe, which is scheduled to launch in 2024 with the goal of obtaining further data on the ocean under Europa’s ice crust and how it interacts with the surface.

“Thanks to the ingenuity of the navigation team, Juno’s trajectory was adjusted to cross the Jovian moon’s orbit at the right time, giving us very valuable data for the Europa Clipper mission!” Gregory Dubos, Systems engineer for the Europa Clipper mission, tweeted on Thursday.

It is possible that this mission will assist scientists in determining whether or not the moon has an inner ocean and whether or not it has the ability to support life.

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