Behold! Our closest view of Jupiter's ocean moon Europa in 22 years

black and white view of criss cross of icy streaks on jupiter's europa with black sky in behind
NASA's Juno spacecraft snapped a close-up view of Jupiter's moon Europa on Sept. 29, 2022. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SWRI/MSSS)

NASA's Jupiter-gazing spacecraft just got a rare closeup of an icy world.

The Juno probe made the closest pass in 22 years of Jupiter's icy moon Europa on Thursday (Sept. 29), providing the best view of the ocean world since the NASA's Galileo spacecraft flew by it 2000.

Skimming just 219 miles (352 kilometers) above Europe's surface, the two-hour flyby was among the three closest-ever glimpses of the icy world. The last similar view that we received was on Jan. 3, 2000 with Galileo, officials with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California said in a statement.

"Rugged terrain features are easily seen, including tall shadow-casting blocks, while bright and dark ridges and troughs curve across the surface. The oblong pit near the terminator might be a degraded impact crater," JPL officials wrote of Juno's flyby imagery (opens in new tab) on Thursday (Sept. 29).

Video: NASA unveils most amazing view of Jupiter's moon Europa ever 

While geology data from the flyby is just starting to come in, officials termed Juno's rare look as key to establishing observations for NASA's coming Europa Clipper mission, which will launch in just two years to study the icy moon.

"Europa Clipper will study the moon's atmosphere, surface, and interior, with its main science goal being to determine whether there are places below Europa's surface that could support life," JPL stated of the mission, which is scheduled to reach the Jupiter system in 2030.

As the sixth-largest moon in the solar system, Europa is similar in size to Earth's moon but has a much different formation and evolutionary history. Europa has a massive icy crust overlying an ocean that researchers think may be capable of supporting Earth-like life.

During its flyby, Juno collected some of the highest-ever resolution pictures of the moon at 0.6 miles or 1 km per pixel, JPL stated, along with information about the moon's environment, atmosphere, surface and interior structure.

In pictures: Chaos reigns in detailed views of Jupiter's icy moon Europa

"The science team will be ... looking to see if Europa's surface features have changed over the past two decades," said Candy Hansen, a Juno co-investigator who leads planning for JunoCam (which obtained the images) at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona.

Data from Juno's microwave radiometer instrument could be especially important for future missions such as Clipper, as it may help identify some potentially habitable  "pockets" of liquid water just underneath the massive ice cap.

Scientists used the flyby to change Juno's trajectory slightly, as it now is slated to make a single orbit of Jupiter in 38 Earth days (compared with the previous 43.) Flybys of the volcanic Jovian moon Io are expected in 2023 and 2024, if the mission can continue surviving the intense radiation radiation belts near Jupiter.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. Elizabeth's reporting includes an exclusive with Office of the Vice-President of the United States, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and (soon) a Bachelor of History from Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace