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A NASA spacecraft flew past one of the most interesting ocean worlds in our solar system on Thursday.
The Juno spacecraft, which has been orbiting Jupiter since 2016, made its closest approach so far to Europa at 5:36 a.m. ET, flying 219 miles (352 kilometers) from its icy surface.
Juno has captured some of the highest resolution images ever taken of Europe’s icy crust. the first It has already been transported to Earth It shows surface features in a region north of the moon’s equator called the Anun Regio.
“Because of the enhanced contrast between light and shadow visible along the end (the night side boundary), rugged terrain features are easily visible, including tall shadow blocks, while bright and dark ridges and troughs curve across the surface,” the NASA release said. “The rectangular crater near the separator may be a deteriorating impact crater.”
The spacecraft also collected data about the interior of the moon, where it is believed to have a salty ocean.
“It’s a very early operation, but by all indications Juno’s flight over Europa was a huge success,” Scott Bolton, Juno principal investigator at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, said in a statement.
“This first image is just a glimpse into the wonderful new science that will come from Juno’s full suite of instruments and sensors that acquired the data as we skimmed over the moon’s icy crust.”
The ice crust that makes up the moon’s surface is between 10 and 15 miles (16 and 24 kilometers) thick, and the depth of the ocean sitting above it is estimated to be about 40 to 100 miles (64 to 161 kilometers).
Juno’s microwave radiometer instrument will study the ice crust to determine more about its temperature and composition. It’s the first time that this kind of information has been collected about a frozen Europa shell.
The data and photos taken by Juno can help inform NASA’s Europa Clipper missionwhich will be launched in 2024 to perform a dedicated series of 50 flights around the Moon after its arrival in 2030. Europa Clipper may be able to help scientists determine if an inner ocean exists and if the Moon is – one of many orbiting Jupiter It has the potential to be habitable for life.
Clipper will eventually travel from an altitude of 1,700 miles (2,735 kilometers) to just 16 miles (26 kilometers) above the surface of the Moon. While Juno has focused largely on the study of Jupiter, Kleber will dedicate himself to observing Europe.
“Europa is an interesting Jovian moon, it’s the focus of a future NASA mission,” Bolton said. “We are pleased to provide data that may help the Europa Clipper team in mission planning, as well as provide new scientific insights into this icy world.”
All of Juno’s instruments collected data during the flyby, including those that can measure the upper layers of Europe’s atmosphere and how Europa interacts with Jupiter’s magnetic field. The team hopes to identify a column of water rising from cracks in the ice crust. Previous missions have spied plumes of water vapor billowing into space through the ice crust.
“We have the right equipment to do the job, but picking up a shaft is going to take a lot of luck,” Bolton said. “We have to be in the right place at just the right time, but if we’re very lucky, that’s for sure.”
Juno is on the extended part of its mission, which was due to finish in 2021. The spacecraft is now focused on doing flybys of some of Jupiter’s moons. The The spacecraft visited Ganymede in 2021 It will be enlarged by 2023 and 2024. Its mission is now scheduled to end in 2025.
Europa’s maneuver shortened Juno’s orbit around Jupiter from 43 to 38 days.
The spacecraft’s flyby was fast, zooming close to the Moon at 52,920 miles per hour (85,167 kilometers per hour).
Europa is about 90% the size of Earth’s moon, and the flyby of Juno was the closest NASA spacecraft had reached since the Galileo mission in 2000.
“The science team will compare the full set of images acquired by Juno with images from previous missions, looking to see if Europa’s surface features have changed over the past two decades,” said Candy Hansen, one of the Juno investigators who is leading planning for JunoCam. Camera at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, in a statement.
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