NASA's Juno spacecraft is about to get super cozy with Jupiter moon Europa. Juno's gearing up for the closest flyby of the moon in decades. The probe will gather data and images during its close approach, scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 29.
Europa is a bit of a solar system celebrity. It's an icy world that's a little smaller than Earth's moon. Researchers are particularly interested in what may lurk beneath. "Scientists think a salty ocean lies below a miles-thick ice shell, sparking questions about potential conditions capable of supporting life underneath Europa's surface," NASA said.
Juno will zoom by within 222 miles (358 kilometers) of Europa's surface. That's roughly the distance from Washington, D.C. to New York City. NASA expects it will send back some of the highest-resolution images ever taken of the intriguing moon.
Juno arrived in Jupiter orbit in 2016 and earned itself a
We can expect knockout pictures, but Juno will also be in full data collection mode. The spacecraft's instruments will investigate the composition and temperature of the moon's icy shell. It will also seek to learn more about the moon's ionosphere (part of its atmosphere) and how the moon interacts with Jupiter.
Scientists are keeping their fingers crossed that Juno might be able to catch. "We have the right equipment to do the job, but to capture a plume will require a lot of luck," said Juno Principal Investigator Scott Bolton. "We have to be at the right place at just the right time, but if we are so fortunate, it's a home run for sure."
All this new information will help NASA with planning for its upcoming, which will seek to understand the moon's potential ability to host life in its watery clutches.
The last time a spacecraft was this close to Europa was back in 2000, when the Galileo mission got snuggly with it. Juno won't be content with bagging just Ganymede and Europa. The moon Io will be next in line in 2023.