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Published 1st May 2012
It’s not every day that you get to sit down and decide how to spend just short of a billion Euros. However, in early May, member states of the European Space Agency (ESA) will vote on which of the proposed missions ESA will implement. Expect it to be Juice-y.
After feasibility studies, internal reviews, and now recommendation from the agency’s executive, Juice is now the leader of the three-horse race for the first large launch slot for the Cosmic Vision Program - setting out ESA’s goals for the decade commencing 2015.
Juice (the Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer) is a decade long mission which will help describe the conditions necessary for the creation of habitable environments, by studying three icy, ocean-bearing moons of Jupiter: Ganymede, Europa and Castello.
The solar powered spacecraft will travel until 2030, when it will arrive at the Jovian system and perform a dozen flybys of the moons, sending data back to earth at a minimum rate of 1.4 Gbit/day, before finally putting itself in orbit around Ganymede until 2033 for the remainder of the mission.
The other projects, expected to be dropped, are Athena (the would-have-been largest X-ray observatory, designed to map black holes and other large stellar structures) and NGO (a trio of spacecrafts designed to observe gravitational waves) - despite being described as having a “high potential for ground-breaking new science” by ESA’s Astronomy Working Group.
After analysis it was deemed that Juice was the best value for money, has a good operational lifespan, uses technology which is already available and is a project which can be delivered earliest; making it the most reliable and desirable mission of the three. The biggest challenge would be overcoming the radiation experienced around Jupiter (which is still no more than a communications satellite would receive - hence why this is a minimal risk investment for the agency).
If the Space Policy Committee follows advice and votes for Juice, we can expect Europe’s newest flagship space mission to realistically launch as early as June 2022.