Juno captures icy cracks of Europa in closest flyby for decades
While NASA’s Juno spacecraft has captured some stunning imagery of Jupiter since entering orbit around the gas giant in 2016, it’s not the only celestial body in the probe’s sights. As part of its exploration of the Jovian system, Juno is also inspecting one of planet’s largest moons in Europa, and has this week swooped in for its closest look yet.
Europa is a source of much intrigue for scientists on the hunt for life beyond Earth. For years, researchers have been watching the moon closely from afar and evidence of liquid water has begun to build, adding weight to the theory that a subsurface ocean lies beneath its icy shell.
This salty body of water is thought to be one the most likely places to harbor life in our Solar System, and with its advanced suite of imagers and instruments, Juno may just help us dig into these secrets. On Thursday September 29, the probe came within 219 miles (352 km) of the moon’s surface, and was the first spacecraft to fly this close to Europa since the Galileo probe in 2000.
In doing so, Juno captured what are some of the highest-resolution images of Europa to date, at around 1 km (0.6 miles) per pixel, along with new data on its icy shell and subsurface structure. The first of these images has now made its way back to Earth, and was snapped around 1,500 km (930 miles) from the surface as Juno zeroed in.
“It’s very early in the process, but by all indications Juno’s flyby of Europa was a great success,” said Scott Bolton, Juno principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “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.”
Citizen scientists have already got to work processing the raw image of Europa, treating it with color enhancements to highlight cracks, streaks and other surface features.
In addition to more incoming data and imagery from the Juno mission, scientists will deepen their knowledge of Europa even further after NASA’s Clipper mission launches in 2024. The mission is a dedicated deep-space journey to study Europa and determine once and for all if conditions there are suitable for life. It is expected to enter orbit around the moon in 2030.