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Europe's Space Agency Prepares to Solve 5 Mysteries of Jupiter

The Juice mission's task list goes all the way from studying magnetic fields to searching for alien life.

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The dark shadow of Jupiter's moon Ganymede decorates the gas giant.
NASA, JPL-Caltech, SwRI, MSSS, Kevin M. Gill

Home to a tangerine storm larger than Earth, owner of peachy winds so frigid you'd probably freeze on impact, and collector of 79 separate moons, Jupiter is something of a spectacle. Even its enormity is barely comprehensible. Take every planet in our solar system, slap their masses together, multiply that by two and you get a chunk about the size of it. 

Who knows what could be going on over there. I mean, really.

Which is why, in April 2023, the European Space Agency plans on sending a space probe to join NASA's Juno orbiter in studying the Jovian lifestyle. It's called Juice, or the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer. "Juice will make detailed observations of the giant gas planet and its three large ocean-bearing moons -- Ganymede, Callisto and Europa -- with a suite of remote sensing, geophysical and in situ instruments," ESA said in the mission's overview

And on Monday, the agency also laid out five specific mysteries it wants to tackle once Juice gets to its destination at this mammoth of a planet in, hopefully, 2031.

ESA's first major question is the obvious one you might've guessed from Juice's full name: What's going on with Ganymede, Callisto and Europa? 

In short, these three moons are at the forefront of the agency's endeavor because they're all suspected to have some sort of water on, or under, their surfaces. Europa, in particular, is projected by astrobiologists to have a hefty amount of H2O and, well, water equals the potential for alien life, which leads us to another of Juice's queries.

Has there ever been life on any of Jupiter's moons -- or, I guess, on Jupiter? In truth, probably not on the latter, because there's neither land nor water on this planet. There's only gas and atmospheric water vapor. Basically, if you tried to stand on Jupiter, you'd just fall in until you were crushed by the planet's immense gravity concentrated toward the center. That's if you could make it that far.

But returning to Europa, an icy world very much with solid ground, scientists currently have this region at the top of their lists of places we might find evidence of extraterrestrial life. In fact, NASA is building a spacecraft dedicated to scanning Europa for such remnants. It's called the Clipper, and it's quite impressive.

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Jupiter, center, and its moon Europa, left, are seen through the James Webb Space Telescope's NIRCam instrument 2.12 micron filter. 

NASA, ESA, CSA, and B. Holler and J. Stansberry (STScI)

Next, turning to Ganymede, another of ESA's wonders is: Why is Ganymede the only moon in our solar system with its own magnetic field? This one's pretty odd. Ganymede's magnetic field is so strong, in fact, that it even gives rise to auroras in its atmosphere, similar to the way Earth's magnetic field produces the northern lights when electrons get caught within.

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Ganymede in the shadow of Jupiter, with its aurorae glowing.

NASA, ESA

But for some unknown reason, the rest of its moon community can't relate to its magnetic ventures. It's an outsider that way. "Juice's tour of Jupiter will include multiple flybys of these ocean-bearing moons, before culminating in orbit insertion around Ganymede -- the first time a spacecraft will have orbited a moon in the outer Solar System," ESA said. 

Further, getting a little more general, ESA also wants to know if, and how, Jupiter's complex space environment shaped the trajectory or conditions of its moons. With 79 individual satellites orbiting it, this Jovian world basically holds its own solar system -- if Jupiter were the sun, that is.

And finally, the fifth and final box ESA hopes to tick while dissecting Jupiter is how such colossal balls of gas come into existence in the first place. Though colored with hues on the cooler end of the spectrum, Uranus, Neptune and Saturn are also wispy cradles of zippy molecules floating around our solar system. What would give rise to these extreme mini-universes?

If all goes well, by the 2030s, we may have some answers.