By Jove! Airbus to build probe for ESA’s hunt for life on Jupiter moon Europa

© NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute/ Handout
The European Space Agency has selected aviation giant Airbus to build a space probe to study Jupiter and three of its moons. Ganymede, Europa, and Callisto are icy bodies with liquid water needed to support life thought to be trapped under their surfaces.

Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) is the first of three planned ESA missions costing over €500 million scheduled between 2015 and 2025. The probe itself would cost €350.8 million under the contract awarded to Airbus, the agency announced. The bulk of the rest of the budget would be spent on an Ariane 5 rocket launch.

The mission is expected to kick-off in 2022 with the probe arriving at the Jovian system in 2030 after a series of gravity assists from Venus and Earth. It would maneuver among the moons and rings of our star system’s largest planet for three years, eventually orbiting Ganymede for eight months, which would be the first time a man-made spacecraft has orbited an icy moon.

Along the way JUICE would observe Jupiter’s polar regions, study the planet’s atmosphere and magnetosphere. But the focus of the mission is to determine whether any of the three Jovian moons can support life in its supposed subsurface oceans.

It will use its instruments to identify the composition of non-water-ice material on Europa’s surface and conduct subsurface sounding of the satellite with penetrating radar to determine the thickness of its crust.

The latest robotic explorer to visit Jupiter system was NASA's Galileo, which arrived at the giant planet in 1995. It made 10 gravity assists along its moons before ending its mission in 2003 with a plunge into Jupiter’s atmosphere.

Ganymede, Europa, and Callisto were discovered in in 1610 by astronomer Galileo Galilei along with the rocky volcanically active Jovian moon Io. Io’s turbulent environment hostile to life excluded it from JUICE mission’s study list.