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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 15.
Maneuver will be one of them Nine flybys of Io by Juno over the next year and a half. Two of the encounters will be just 930 miles (1,500 kilometers) from the Moon’s surface.
Juno captured a bright infrared view of Io on July 5 from a distance of 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers). The brightest spots in this image correspond to the hottest temperatures on Io, home to hundreds of volcanoes — some of which can send fountains of lava tens of miles high.
Scientists will use Juno’s observations of Io to learn more about this network of volcanoes and how its eruptions interact with Jupiter. The Moon is constantly being pulled by Jupiter’s massive gravitational pull.
“The team is very excited to include the study of Jupiter’s moons in Juno’s extended mission. With each close flyby, we’ve been able to learn a lot of new information,” said Juno principal investigator Scott Bolton of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.
“Juno’s sensors were designed to study Jupiter, but we’re impressed that they can do double duty by observing Jupiter’s moons.”
The spacecraft recently captured a new image of Jupiter’s northernmost cyclone on September 29. Jupiter’s atmosphere is dominated by hundreds of cyclones and many clusters at the planet’s poles.
The Juno spacecraft has been orbiting Jupiter since 2016 to reveal more details about the giant planet, and is aiming to conduct flybys of Jupiter’s moons during an extended part of its mission that began last year and is expected to last until the end of 2025.
Juno flew by Jupiter’s moon Ganymede in 2021 and by Europa earlier this year. The spacecraft used its instruments to peer beneath the icy crust of both moons and gathered information about the interior of Europa, where a salty ocean is thought to exist.
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The ice sheet that forms Europa’s surface is between 10 and 15 miles (16 and 24 kilometers) thick, and the ocean it sits on is estimated to be between 40 and 100 miles (64 and 161 kilometers) deep.
The data and images captured by Juno could help inform two separate missions to Jupiter’s moons over the next two years: the European Space Agency’s JUpiter ICy satellites Explorer and NASA’s Europa Clipper mission.
The first, expected to launch in April 2023, will spend three years deeply exploring Jupiter and its three icy moons – Ganymede, Callisto and Europa. All three moons are thought to have oceans beneath their ice-covered crusts, and scientists want to investigate whether Ganymede’s ocean is potentially habitable.
Europa Clipper will be launched in 2024 to perform a special series of 50 flybys around the Moon after arriving in 2030. Finally, going from an altitude of 1,700 miles (2,736 kilometers) to just 16 miles (26 kilometers) above the moon’s surface, Europa Clipper could help scientists determine whether there really is an internal ocean and whether the moon could support life.
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