NASA’s Juno spacecraft captures extraordinarily detailed images of Jupiter’s moon Europa

NASA’s Juno spacecraft took its first photograph of Jupiter’s moon Europa, capturing the ice-covered surface in extraordinary detail.

The image is the closest look at Europa that any spacecraft has provided in more than 20 years, when the US space agency’s Galileo came within 218 miles (351 km) of the surface in January 2000.

Revealing surface features in a region near the moon’s equator called Annwn Regio, the Juno images were captured during the solar probe’s closest approach yesterday (Thursday).

Europa is the sixth largest moon in the solar system, slightly smaller than Earth’s moon.

Scientists believe a salty ocean lies beneath a layer of ice miles thick, raising questions about possible conditions capable of supporting life below Europa’s surface.

Up close and personal: NASA's Juno spacecraft took its first picture of Jupiter's moon Europa, capturing the ice-covered surface in extraordinary detail

Up close and personal: NASA’s Juno spacecraft took its first picture of Jupiter’s moon Europa, capturing the ice-covered surface in extraordinary detail

The images are the closest look at Europa that any spacecraft has provided in more than 20 years, when the US space agency's Galileo came within 218 miles (351 km) of the surface in January 2000.

The images are the closest look at Europa that any spacecraft has provided in more than 20 years, when the US space agency's Galileo came within 218 miles (351 km) of the surface in January 2000.

The images are the closest look at Europa that any spacecraft has provided in more than 20 years, when the US space agency’s Galileo came within 218 miles (351 km) of the surface in January 2000.

Revealing surface features in a region near the moon's equator called Annwn Regio, the Juno images were captured during the solar probe's closest approach yesterday (Thursday).

Revealing surface features in a region near the moon's equator called Annwn Regio, the Juno images were captured during the solar probe's closest approach yesterday (Thursday).

Revealing surface features in a region near the moon’s equator called Annwn Regio, the Juno images were captured during the solar probe’s closest approach yesterday (Thursday).

WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT EUROPE?

Jupiter’s icy moon Europa is slightly smaller than Earth’s moon.

Europa orbits Jupiter every 3.5 days and is tidally locked, just like Earth’s moon, so that the same side of Europa faces Jupiter at all times.

It is believed to have an iron core, a rocky mantle, and a surface ocean of salty water, just like Earth.

Unlike Earth, however, this ocean is deep enough to cover the entire surface of Europa and, being far from the sun, the ocean’s surface is globally frozen.

Many experts believe that the hidden ocean surrounding Europa, heated by powerful tidal forces caused by Jupiter’s gravity, may have conditions favorable for life.

NASA scientists are about to explore Jupiter’s oceanic moon Europa for signs of extraterrestrial life.

Europa is our best chance to find biological life in the solar system, researchers say.

As exciting as Juno’s data will be, the spacecraft only had a two-hour window to collect it, zipping past the moon at a relative speed of about 14.7 miles per second (23.6 kilometers per second).

“It’s very early in the process, but all indications are that Juno’s Europa flyby was a huge success,” said Scott Bolton, Juno principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.

“This first image is just a glimpse of the remarkable new science that will emerge from Juno’s full suite of instruments and sensors that acquired data as we skimmed across the moon’s icy crust.”

This segment of the first image of Europa taken during this flyby by the spacecraft’s JunoCam zooms in on a swath of Europa’s surface north of the equator.

Due to the enhanced contrast between light and shadow seen along the terminator, the nightside boundary, rugged terrain features are easily seen, including tall blocks that cast shadows, while bright ridges and valleys and dark curves along the surface.

The oblong hole near the terminator could be a degraded impact crater.

Juno came within about 219 miles (352 km) of Europa’s surface in what was only the third close pass in history below 310 miles (500 km) in altitude.

During the flyby, the mission collected what will be some of the highest resolution images of the moon ever, obtaining valuable data on Europa’s ice sheet structure, interior, surface composition, and ionosphere, as well as the Moon’s interaction with Jupiter’s magnetosphere.

“The science team will compare the full set of images obtained by Juno with images from previous missions, looking to see if Europa’s surface features have changed over the last two decades,” said Candy Hansen, a Juno co-investigator leading the planning of the camera at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona.

“JunoCam images will complete the current geological map, replacing existing low-resolution coverage of the area.”

Close-up views of Juno and data from its Microwave Radiometer (MWR) instrument will provide new details about how Europa’s ice structure varies beneath its crust.

Scientists can use all of this information to generate new insights about the moon, including data in the search for regions where liquid water may exist in shallow underground pockets.

With these additional data on Europa’s geology, Juno’s observations will benefit future missions to the Jovian moon, including the agency’s Europa Clipper.

Scientists believe a salty ocean lies beneath a layer of ice miles thick, raising questions about possible conditions capable of supporting life below Europa's surface.

Scientists believe a salty ocean lies beneath a layer of ice miles thick, raising questions about possible conditions capable of supporting life below Europa's surface.

Scientists believe a salty ocean lies beneath a layer of ice miles thick, raising questions about possible conditions capable of supporting life below Europa’s surface.

The Juno probe, shown here in an artist's impression, arrived at Jupiter on July 4, 2016, after a journey of five years and 1.8 billion miles (2.8 billion km) from Earth.

The Juno probe, shown here in an artist's impression, arrived at Jupiter on July 4, 2016, after a journey of five years and 1.8 billion miles (2.8 billion km) from Earth.

The Juno probe, shown here in an artist’s impression, arrived at Jupiter on July 4, 2016, after a journey of five years and 1.8 billion miles (2.8 billion km) from Earth.

Scheduled to launch in 2024, Europa Clipper will study the moon’s atmosphere, surface and interior, with the main scientific goal of determining whether there are places below Europa’s surface that could support life.

Building on observations from Juno and previous missions like Voyager 2 and Galileo, the Europa Clipper mission will study the moon’s atmosphere, surface and interior when it arrives in 2030.

Their goal is to investigate the habitability of the moon and better understand its global underground ocean, the thickness of its ice crust, and look for possible plumes that may be expelling subsurface water into space.

The close flyby altered Juno’s trajectory, reducing the time it takes to orbit Jupiter from 43 days to 38 days.

It marks the second encounter with a Galilean moon during Juno’s extended mission, having previously observed Ganymede in June 2021.

The spacecraft is also scheduled to make close flybys of Io, the most volcanic body in the solar system, in 2023 and 2024.

How NASA’s Juno probe to Jupiter will reveal the secrets of the largest planet in the solar system

The Juno probe arrived at Jupiter in 2016 after a journey of five years and 1.8 billion miles from Earth.

The Juno probe arrived at Jupiter in 2016 after a journey of five years and 1.8 billion miles from Earth.

The Juno probe arrived at Jupiter in 2016 after a journey of five years and 1.8 billion miles from Earth.

Juno arrived at Jupiter on July 4, 2016, after a five-year journey 1.8 billion miles (2.8 billion kilometers) from Earth.

After a successful braking maneuver, it entered a long polar orbit flying up to 3,100 miles (5,000 km) from the planet’s swirling cloud tops.

The probe came within just 2,600 miles (4,200 km) of the planet’s clouds once every fortnight, too close to provide global coverage in a single image.

No previous spacecraft has orbited so close to Jupiter, although two others have been sent to their destruction through its atmosphere.

To complete her risky mission, Juno survived a radiation storm generated by Jupiter’s powerful magnetic field.

The maelstrom of high-energy particles traveling at nearly the speed of light is the harshest radiation environment in the Solar System.

To cope with the conditions, the spacecraft was protected with special radiation-hardened wiring and sensor shielding.

Its all-important ‘brain’, the spacecraft’s flight computer, was housed in an armored dome made of titanium and weighed nearly 400 pounds (172 kg).

The spacecraft is expected to study the composition of the planet’s atmosphere until 2025.

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