LONDON: Jupiter's icy moons will be the focus of Europe's next large science mission. The €1 billion ($1.27 billion) Juice mission will investigate the possibility of ''waterworlds'' that may harbour life. Its primary target is Ganymede, the solar system's biggest moon, which is 8 per cent larger than Mercury.
Ganymede is thought to conceal a deep ocean of salty water beneath a thick crust of ice. It also has a magnetic field, offering protection against Jupiter's radiation belts, and an ancient surface littered with craters.
The plan is to send a probe into orbit around Ganymede to study its sub-surface ocean and assess whether life could exist there. The Juice (Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer) spacecraft will also make fly-bys of two other moons, Callisto and Europa, also believed to have ice-covered oceans.
Juice is scheduled to launch in 2022 and will take eight years to make the journey to Jupiter. After its arrival in 2030, Juice will spend three years collecting data to be transmitted back to Earth.
The mission, the first journey to the outer solar system to be led by Europe, was approved by the European Space Agency at a meeting in Paris. British scientists, who make up four of the 15 members of the ESA Science Study Team for Juice, are bidding to design instruments for the probe.
Dr Leigh Fletcher, from Oxford University, said: ''Scientists have had a lot of success detecting the giant planets orbiting distant stars, but the really exciting prospect may be the existence of potentially habitable 'waterworlds' that could be a lot like Ganymede or Europa. One of the main aims of the mission is to try to understand whether a 'waterworld' such as Ganymede might be the sort of environment that could harbour life.''
As well as orbiting Ganymede, the spacecraft will study Jupiter's atmosphere and swirling storm systems. It will also look at the magnetic and charged-particle environment of Jupiter and how it affects the planet's moons.
Dr Emma Bunce, from the University of Leicester, said: ''We need to place the possible habitability of these 'waterworlds' into some broader context, and Juice will do that by also studying the surrounding environment.''