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What is the JUICE mission? (Featuring Nicolas Altobelli)

Dean and guest Nicolas Altobelli, the science operations and development manager for ESA's JUICE mission, discuss the upcoming project studying Jupiter's icy moons. Stay tuned for more new episodes, now releasing every other Friday!


Looking Up is transcribed using a combination of AI speech recognition and human editors. It may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

The European Space Agency has launched a mission to Jupiter's moons to investigate whether there is life outside the Earth. The mission will study the Jupiter Icy Moons, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. The mission will compare the evolution of the three icy moons and perform the first tomography of an icy moon. The goal is to understand how the water keeps liquid, how it interacts with the rest of the moon, and whether these interactions could allow conditions favorable for life to develop as we know it.

Dean Regas 0:00

So, are we alone? You know, in this vast universe? Is there any life outside the Earth? Is there alien life out there somewhere? I mean, with all the stars and all the galaxies, all the planets, maybe there's life out there. But maybe we don't need to look that far, maybe we could look somewhere a little closer to Earth, maybe in our own solar system. Some of the best candidates for places to look are real close to us. I mean, we've got Mars, we've got the icy moons of Jupiter, and the icy moons of Jupiter actually pretty exciting because these are pretty big balls of ice that have been kneaded like clay and the tidal force from their parent gas giant planet. And they may have some huge liquid water oceans hidden beneath the surface. Well, European Space Agency has just launched a mission to Jupiter's moons to investigate just that. And today, we're talking with a scientist from the JUICE mission team. From the studios of Cincinnati Public Radio, I'm your host, Dean Regas. And this is Looking Up, the show that takes you deep into the cosmos or just to the telescope in your backyard to learn more about what makes this amazing universe of ours so great. Our guest this week is Nicolas Altobelli. The science operations development manager for ESA's JUICE mission.

Dean Regas 1:40

All right, so we're talking about the JUICE mission. This is a rocket that launched in April 2023. And will arrive at Jupiter in 2031. So, it is incredible to send a spacecraft that far. Now JUICE First off, I mean, we gotta go with the name. I mean, it's I don't know what you guys think catchy not too catchy. It stands for something. Of course, it stands for the Jupiter Icy Moons explorer JUICE. Yeah, they were really stretching on this one. But, you know, I guess you'll always remember that that's for sure. And that's what they're looking for, kind of looking for JUICE down in these moons. I'm laughing because you know, we're thinking about water. But I'm also thinking of like drink boxes and stuff like that for kids and like Capri Suns or something like that. That's not the JUICE we're looking for. We're looking for h2o. We're looking for water. And these moons of Jupiter are pretty incredible. I mean, they are their own little worlds we think of moons kind of like our moon that's dried desolate, barren wasteland of an object but the moons around Jupiter we've got Europa we've got Ganymede we've got Callisto. These are big objects. These are worlds on their own. So a moon like Ganymede and Callisto. These are the sizes of planets. So they're Mercury sized objects that are just happened to be going around another planet that's even bigger Jupiter that is. So what's happening on these moons is that they're mostly frozen. They're mostly icy. But below the surface there are signs of liquid water and from our flybys from various missions. We've gotten some really close up pictures and close up ideas. And all three of those moons Ganymede, Europa and Callisto are candidates for lots and lots of water. So combined, those three moons could have six times the water that we have here on Earth.

Dean Regas 4:31

Now, probably Europa is the one that gets all the press because Europa is the one that's very it's frozen on the surface. So when you look at the pictures we can see this kind of like cracked surface it looks like you know these lines cross crossed lines of ice but recent developments recent the observations of this moon have shown that there's stuff leaking out of it that's shooting out of the gaps out of the cracks in the surface. And it's seems to be h2o, there seems to be so much water on this little tiny moon, that it's coming out the sides. So one of the very, very future missions is to send a craft to Europa. And to drill down through the ice and see what lurks below. And likelihood is that there is an ocean in liquid form underneath this ice. So on Earth where we find water, what do we find? Life, life is like everywhere on this earth and some of the darndest places and some of the farthest reaches of the ocean, some of the farthest places under frozen lakes, we find life forms. So yeah, maybe we don't need to look any farther than the Jupiter Icy Moons. So now Ganymede is also in the mix here as well, because again, to me, it is the biggest of the moons it's the biggest moon in the solar system. And so holds a little bit of promise. Now, it's not like there's like big oceans and that kind of stuff. This is mostly in the frozen form that we're seeing here. So that one and then Callisto is kind of like the third in this. But to me, Europa is the main one. And the JUICE mission is going to be going through all three of these, and maybe not as much in Europa as it could, because NASA is planning a mission to Europa in the very near future. And so they're going to be really circling around that moon quite a bit more. So what could we find this is going to be interesting, because, well, I guess we have to wait a little while don't worry if it's going to take until 2031 to get there. Yeah, I mean, again, space missions, you got to be really patient with this kind of stuff, because it takes a long time to get anywhere. Now I'm sure they could get there faster. There's no doubt you could like do a direct route here to Jupiter. But the problem is, is they want to enter into an orbit, they want to move the spacecraft in a way that it can circle around the planet, and then swing around these moons. So we're not flying by as fast as we can. And so this is kind of like they're taking their time, but they're saving their fuel. And then the faster you go, the more you have to slow down to get into this. So it's definitely one of those let's take our time to get there test out the systems. And, but the promise from this, this could provide some really exciting stuff for some future and space travel. So joining me today I have Nicola Altobelli, the science operations development manager for the JUICE mission. Nicola, thanks so much for joining me today.

Nicolas Altobelli 7:41

Thanks for inviting me.

Dean Regas 7:43

This is exciting to be part of this mission to Jupiter's icy moons. We saw the launch go off without a hitch, everything was looking good. How you feeling? Isn't it amazing? Once the spacecraft gets off the ground and going into space? What's the feeling around there?

Nicolas Altobelli 8:02

Yes, this was a great feeling. Actually, this was my first launch, which I could experience live. I was very family in French Guiana. So we had all made the trip to French Guiana to watch JUICE starting on its journey. And I must say, I have started for me the countdown started really about 10 years ago. Because you know, those missions, obviously is a large class mission of the European Space Agency's first launch dress mission of the cosmic Vision Program. And this is a typical development time and testing time of about 10 years. So looking at this thing, taking off was really at the same time, a huge relief, marking the start of the journey, but also the accomplishments of all the project work that had been done with many countries involved on to make this thing happen.

Dean Regas 9:02

With the amount of time that it takes to make a mission and put it all together, what were some of the unique challenges that your team faced, like in preparing the mission?

Nicolas Altobelli 9:14

Now, there were a few actually, probably, yeah, it has not been unique. It has been unique in space exploration, I think a pandemic, the COVID that really made things tricky. So basically, it was already built integrated was a testing phase was starting. And of course when you cannot join the facility when you know you're restricted in the way you can enter buildings and so on. It has been really a challenge for the team to finish the spacecraft. But it was really managed very well by the project team and our contractor Airbus such that actually there was no significant delay. And I would say second thing that was quite difficult to handle towards the end was the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. Where actually you know that we have to transport the spacecraft to the spaceport in Kourou in French Guiana from Toulouse in France where the final tests are being made. And for this you need special planes or very large planes, the entrance of which are operated by Ukrainian company. And it wasn't clear until quite late in the program, whether we could use those planes or not. So the project team had to find alternative ways to transport the spacecraft but also all the equipment that you would need on the launch pad. So I think those are two let's say unique things that JUICE in the project had to deal with.

Dean Regas 10:50

Oh, that's amazing. I mean, for us in the United States, we build it right in that gigantic hangar and then roll it out and to actually have to transport it. Man that must have been nerve racking to just have watched this your baby basically go onto this plane and fly off to the to the next stop.

Nicolas Altobelli 11:11

Yeah, it's actually yeah, and spacecraft is built over different sites in Europe actually, SOS as a transport is a usual thing. But when it gets complicated a bit by you know, the, the what else is happening in the world at the same time, it makes things even more complicated now. Oh,

Dean Regas 11:28

absolutely. And so now we have to wait right? We have to be patient again, the mission will arrive there at Jupiter 2031. Is that correct?

Nicolas Altobelli 11:38

That is correct. Yes. So you can so the Jupiter orbit insertion is happening in June July 2031. But we will be already seeing Jupiter already six months before so I would say beginning of 31 We're already very close to the Jupiter system.

Dean Regas 11:54

And then I'll just enter into this kind of looping orbit around Jupiter itself.

Nicolas Altobelli 12:00

Yes. So, the first thing to do which is actually the next really critical milestone of the mission is to break so you will have to we will use the main engine burn for quite some time. And in order to reduce the velocity with respect to Jupiter's such as to transfer from an hyperbolic orbit to an elliptical orbit. This will be originally highly elongated orbits but we will already be captured in Jupiter gravitational field. And then we will progressively reduce the energy of the orbit to circularize on the ellipse around Jupiter while performing flybys of Ganymede. And, and then we will go into the Europa flyby phase, also making flyby at Callisto before entering a final orbits around Ganymede and becoming the first actually mission orbiting a moon which is not our own, not the Earth.

Dean Regas 13:02

Oh, that's incredible. I mean, seeing these three moons up close, this is going to be something that's I think gonna really grab people's attention and to circle around Ganymede, tell us a little bit about that moon, because I was talking about Europa quite a bit. What's the what's the what's going on Ganymede that makes it such an intriguing target.

Nicolas Altobelli 13:24

So getting that in itself is kind of a unique body. It's a very large body. It's larger than the planet Mercury for example. So you really have to think about the icy moon and in particular Ganymede and Callisto as almost walls on their own. So the entrance of Ganymede is we are trying to compare the evolution of the moons of the three icy moons, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. Because those bodies actually formed and from this at the same in the same region of the solar system around Jupiter, but they had completely different fates. If you looked at Ganymede, for example, it's kind of an intermediate state between Callisto and Europa. on Europa, you see that you have a young surface, you seem to have recent geological activity. Callisto on the overhead is completely dead, geologically speaking. And good image shows a bit of both worlds. And it's clear that to understand the past of all moons and see how, you know, the environment, conditions, or Jupiter. How those conditions, let's say made the mood evolve how they are today. Getting made has the best records of the past. And for this reason, we wanted Ganymede to be the main target and be able to perform the first tomography of an icy moon. So looking into the interior understanding really how it, how it's made, how it evolved, in order to understand the history of the entire system.

Dean Regas 15:00

Well, of course, the idea is we're looking for water and liquid on these icy moons. And I have to ask what's your, your thought on life? Is there life on these moons? I know, we can't really say and but if you if you have a kind of gut, unscientific reaction, if you were to pick which Moon would be the most likely to have life on it, which one would you pick?

Nicolas Altobelli 15:28

I would consider this into such an insistent,

Dean Regas 15:31

oh, you're going even farther. So you're going to you're going to Saturn.

Nicolas Altobelli 15:35

And this is why I'm mentioning this because we have to, of course, avoid speculating in this area. So we have so far absolutely no evidence of the existence of life outside of. So what we're looking with JUICE is our actually what condition lead to a habitability and I know it's a, it's an ugly word. The word habitability is not well defined, and can have different understanding or depending on who you're talking to. But what we're really after is, of course, liquid water. This is one of the mantra of astrobiology follows water. So Ganymede, Europa, and Callisto actually are, do have according to the Galileo data, and values modeling, they do have an extended body of liquid water inside. And of course, as soon as you hear liquid water, people start thinking about life. But there is much more to life than just having liquid water. What we want to do is to understand how you keep the water liquid, how the liquid water interact with the rest of the moon, and whether these interactions in worse conditions and the stability over time of the system could allow conditions favorable for life as we know it in the deep sea. As we know them from Earth, actually, in the first billion of years of EARTH EXISTENCE, the current life that exists in the universe, the dark, smoky, white smokers, it's already a life which has evolved and is adapted to the new condition on earth and in the ocean, that what we are looking for is actually conditions that could be similar to how we think life emerged and evolved on this. So I really cannot give you a good feeling on this because we have so many parameters that you know, I really don't know that we have to go step wise. We know that there are many exoplanets of the size of Jupiter out there in the galaxy, we know that water is super abundant everywhere in the form of ice in particular, we know that some physics can help maintaining water liquid beyond the snowline of a star. So beyond the distance where liquid water on the surface of a body cannot exist any longer. We have seen this being validated by the Cassini mission at Saturn on the inside the Enceladus moon. So now the JUICE mission has to go there characterize in detail how all this work, and only then we will have a better gut feeling whether those conditions can you know, help life to develop as we know it?

Dean Regas 18:20

Well, well said and you know, I have to ask you that question is just to prepare you Nicola in case you talk to other Americans, they're gonna always ask you about aliens. That's we're obsessed with aliens. So we just yeah, this was a well answered. And you also put a an idea forth for a future ESA mission to go to Enceladus.

Nicolas Altobelli 18:42

Sorry, what do you mean?

Dean Regas 18:44

Oh, I meant that, that you mentioned the moon Enceladus, around Saturn. And I think that meant that you need to make a mission to go there, don't you think?

Nicolas Altobelli 18:54

Yes. But before you send a mission, somewhere you need to know what you're looking for. Because what is really crucial on the mission are the instruments that you take on board. So, what are you looking for? When you hear about aliens? What do people how do people represent themselves on the rosary? And so, what instrument Are you taking? And I know there have been some thoughts about that. I'm not sure on the US side, what is the state of the program? I cannot comment on that. But what you need to characterize is what do you expect to see from the interior coming to the outside of the moon because obviously you cannot, you know, drill into it. So you have to be able to infer what's happening in the interior from what you see on the exterior of the moon and this is, this helps me this is exactly what we are doing with JUICE Ganymede making this tomography so from all the signs that we can sense from the exterior and sanding the interior, we try to make ourselves an image of what is really going on inside the moon. And only once you have characterized the moon in full detail, maybe you can think about sending lenders of other ideas that are that have been studied already. That you really have to know when you send the lender, what instruments you take with you and where you lend and what you're looking for. And currently, I think it's too early to have a clear idea about that.

Dean Regas 20:21

Well, this is an exciting time. We're going to be following along with this mission as it journeys out to Jupiter. But Nicola, thank you so much for joining me today and telling us a little bit about the JUICE mission.

Nicolas Altobelli 20:34

Thanks. Thanks a lot.

Dean Regas 20:36

I've been speaking with Nicolas Altobelli, the science operations Development Manager for ESA’s JUICE mission. Thanks again.