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Juno spacecraft prepares for close encounter with icy moon Europa

A NASA probe will dive to about 350 kilometers above the surface of Europa on Sept. 29, returning detailed images and data about its magnetic fields and ice crust.

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September 8, 2022

The Juno spacecraft gets a close-up of Europe

NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Juno spacecraft is about to give scientists a closer look at Jupiter’s frozen moon Europa in more than 22 years.

The mission will fly to about 350 kilometers above the surface of Europa on September 29, providing detailed images as well as data on the moon’s magnetic field and its ice crust.

The last time a spacecraft came close to Europa in the same way was in January 2000 when NASA’s Galileo orbiter swung by at a distance of 351 kilometers.

“We have already completed all preparations. We are very excited. Everything is on schedule,” said Scott Bolton, principal investigator for the Juno mission.

“Our flyby is quite unique. The part of Europe we’re going to be able to see doesn’t contain particularly high-resolution data from Galileo, so this is the first time we’ll be able to see that [region] with a very high resolution,” he says.

All of Juno’s science instruments will capture data during the fast pass, Bolton says. The main camera, JunoCam, will produce a handful of wide-field images, while the navigation camera, known as the stellar reference unit, will be tasked with capturing a single, very high-resolution image of a small patch of Europe’s night side, illuminated only by the scattered light from Jupiter’s cloud tops.

Researchers also hope to use the flyby to gain insight into Europe’s ice shell using Juno’s microwave radiometer. Bolton likens the instrument to a radar device, “except it’s passive, so we’re just looking at emission coming out of it.” [from Europa] instead of sending a signal in and seeing it bounce,” he says. The radiometer’s data can give scientists clues as to the depth of the shell and can reveal whether there are fractured areas or areas of liquid in the frozen crust.

The team will even look for signs of the water vapor plumes that studies have suggested originated in Europe, though Bolton emphasizes that these features “should fire at the right time in a way that we can see them.”

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