CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida. — NASA’s Juno spacecraft has made the closest approach to Jupiter’s tempting icy moon Europa in more than 20 years.
Juno passed within about 219 miles (352 kilometers) of Europa on Thursday, and is believed to have an ocean flowing under its thick frozen crust, raising the possibility of underwater life. Scientists hailed the flyby as a success, with four images transmitted and published within several hours.
Scientists had hoped to observe possible plumes of water shooting from Europa’s surface, about the size of Earth’s moon. But none were immediately visible on initial appearance.
“We have to be in the right place at the right time,” Juno chief scientist Scott Bolton of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio said in a statement.
John Bordi, deputy mission manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, expected the spacecraft to zip by “screaming pretty fast,” with a relative speed of almost 15 miles per second (23.6 kilometers per second).
The first photo of the flyby is a close-up of the equatorial region of Europa, criss-crossed by ridges, valleys, and possibly an impact crater.
The latest observations will help NASA plan its Europa Clipper mission, which is due to launch in 2024 and reach the Jovian system in 2030. The European Space Agency is also planning close encounters with its Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer, or Juice, due to take off next year. .
NASA’s old Galileo spacecraft still holds the Europa flyby record, passing within 218 miles (351 kilometers) in 2000.
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