We finally know what the north pole of Jupiter's moon Europa looks like, from a distance.
The distant view from NASA's Juno spacecraft orbiting Jupiter captures the previously unseen region of the icy moon, which has water vapor apparently arising from plumes and which may have habitable conditions in its ocean.
The image was taken from nearly 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers) away while Juno was performing its primary mission to examine Jupiter's atmosphere. The resolution is admittedly quite rough, as individual pixels are rendered at roughly 31 to 37 miles (50 to 60 km) each. But you can see changes in the albedo, or light reflectivity, on an otherwise very bright moon.
The view will improve next year when the spacecraft zooms only a few hundred miles above that same region, Juno principal investigator Scott Bolton said during a Thursday (Oct. 28) NASA press conference.
"This is a tantalizing example and a taste of what to come," added Bolton, who is director of the space science and engineering division of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI). The Europa results were briefly mentioned during a larger discussion about 3D views of Jupiter's atmosphere, and the deep roots of the persistent storm known as the Great Red Spot.
Europa is a popular destination that has been imaged by spacecraft many times. The first close-up views were from NASA's twin Pioneer and twin Voyager spacecraft in the 1970s, revealing an icy surface scarred by cracks. Even more detail came during the Galileo mission, which orbited Jupiter and its moons between 1995 and 2003.
Quite a few spacecraft have flown by Europa on their way to other destinations, and the Hubble Space Telescope and other telescopes near or on Earth do turn their eyes on the moon from time to time. But what constrains these various views is they all have been on or near the ecliptic, which is the plane upon which the solar system's sun, planets and many of its moons orbit.
Juno, by contrast, has a more polar-orbiting path that has shed unique views on Jupiter already, such as showing the extent and stability of its polar cyclones. The picture of Europa was created by citizen scientist Andrea Luck, using information from the JunoCam camera.
The press conference did not discuss what science could be performed at Europa's poles, but previous peer-reviewed research has discussed transient water vapor at the south pole or attempted geologic mapping while getting as close to the poles as possible.
Later in the decade, at least two major missions are expected to launch to Europa. The European Space Agency's JUpiter ICy moons Explorer (JUICE) will fly by Europa and several other icy worlds after launch in June 2022, while NASA's Europa Clipper will focus on the moon following launch in October 2024. Both missions will arrive and operate at Europa in the 2030s.
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