January 28, 2023

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A NASA spacecraft is heading towards the most volcanic place in the solar system

A NASA spacecraft is heading towards the most volcanic place in the solar system

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A NASA spacecraft is preparing for the first of a series of close encounters with the most volcanic place in the solar system. The Juno spacecraft will fly by Jupiter’s moon Io on Thursday, December 15th.

The maneuver will be one of Nine flights of Io were made by Juno over the next year and a half. The two encounters will be from just 930 miles (1,500 kilometers) from the lunar surface.

Juno captured a glowing infrared view of Io on July 5 from 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers) away. The brightest spots in that image correspond to hotter temperatures on Io, which is home to hundreds of volcanoes — some of which can send out fountains of lava dozens of miles high.

Scientists will use Juno’s observations of Io to learn more about the volcanic network and how its eruptions interact with Jupiter. The Moon is constantly being pulled in by Jupiter’s immense gravity.

“The team is really excited that the expanded Juno mission includes the study of Jupiter’s moons. With each close flyby, we have been able to obtain a wealth of new information,” Scott Bolton, principal investigator for Juno at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, said in a statement.

“Juno’s sensors are designed to study Jupiter, but we’re pleased with how well they can do double duty by observing Jupiter’s moons.”

The spacecraft recently captured a new image of Jupiter’s northernmost cyclone on Sept. 29. Jupiter’s atmosphere is dominated by hundreds of hurricanes, many of which gather at the planet’s poles.

Juno captured Jupiter's northernmost hurricane, seen to the right along the bottom edge of the image.

The Juno spacecraft has been orbiting Jupiter since 2016 to reveal more details about the giant planet and focus on performing flybys of Jupiter’s moons during the extended part of its mission, which began last year and is expected to continue until the end of 2025.

Juno passed by Jupiter’s moon Ganymede in 2021, followed by Europa earlier this year. The spacecraft used its instruments to search under the icy crust of both moons and collected data about the interior of Europa, where the salty ocean is thought to be.

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The ice shell that makes up Europa’s surface is between 10 and 15 miles (16 and 24 kilometers) thick, and the ocean it sits on top of is estimated to be 40 to 100 miles (64 to 161 kilometers) deep.

The data and images captured by Juno could help inform two separate missions headed to Jupiter’s moons in the next two years: the European Space Agency’s JUpiter ICy Satellite Explorer and NASA’s Europa Clipper mission.

The first, expected to launch in April 2023, will spend three years exploring Jupiter and three of its icy moons — Ganymede, Callisto and Europa — in depth. All three moons are believed to have oceans under their ice-covered crusts, and scientists want to explore if Ganymede’s ocean is habitable.

The Europa Clipper will be launched in 2024 to perform a dedicated series of 50 flybys around the Moon after its arrival in 2030. Eventually, going from 1,700 miles (2,736 kilometers) high to 16 miles (26 kilometers) above the lunar surface, it might be able to is helping scientists determine whether there really is an inner ocean and whether the moon could support life.

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