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A NASA spacecraft is preparing for the first in 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 15.
The maneuver will be one of nine Io close passes by Juno over the next year and a half. Two of the encounters will take place as close as 930 miles (1,500 kilometers) from the lunar surface.
Juno captured a brilliant infrared view of Io on July 5 from 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers) away. The brightest spots in that image correspond to the hottest temperatures on Io, which is home to hundreds of volcanoes, some of which can send fountains of lava dozens of miles high.
Scientists will use Juno’s observations of Io to learn more about that network of volcanoes and how its eruptions interact with Jupiter. The moon is constantly being pulled along by Jupiter’s massive gravitational pull.
“The team is very excited that Juno’s extended mission includes the study of Jupiter’s moons. With each flyby, we were able to gain a wealth of new information,” said Scott Bolton, Juno principal investigator at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, in a statement.
“The Juno sensors are designed to study Jupiter, but we were excited about 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 cyclones, and many congregate at the planet’s poles.
The Juno spacecraft has been orbiting Jupiter since 2016 to discover more details about the giant planet and is focused on performing flybys of Jupiter’s moons during the extended portion of its mission, which began last year and is expected to last until end of 2025.
Juno flew past Jupiter’s moon Ganymede in 2021, followed by Europa earlier this year. The spacecraft used its instruments to look beneath the icy crusts of both moons and collected data on Europa’s interior, where a salty ocean is thought to exist.
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The shell of ice that makes up Europa’s surface is between 10 and 15 miles (16 and 24 kilometers) thick, and the ocean it sits on is estimated to probably 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 over the next two years: the European Space Agency’s JUpiter ICy moons Explorer mission and NASA’s Europa Clipper mission.
The first, due to launch in April 2023, will spend three years deep-diving Jupiter and three of its icy moons: Ganymede, Callisto and Europa. All three moons are thought to have oceans beneath their ice-covered crusts, and scientists want to explore whether Ganymede’s ocean is potentially habitable.
Europa Clipper will launch in 2024 to perform a dedicated series of 50 flybys around the moon after arriving in 2030. Eventually passing from an altitude of 1,700 miles (2,736 kilometers) to just 16 miles (26 kilometers) above the lunar surface, Europa Clipper may be able to help scientists determine whether there really is an internal ocean there and whether the moon could support life.