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ESA to probe Jupiter's moons for life-giving elements

PARIS -- The European Space Agency (ESA) said Thursday it plans to launch an explorer craft in 2022 to examine Jupiter's icy moons for conditions that may be conducive to primitive life.

The Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) will launch from Kourou, French Guiana, on an Ariane rocket, arriving at the planet by 2030 for at least three years of detailed observations, the agency said in a statement.

Under the multi-million euro mission, the spacecraft will study the gas giant planet's atmosphere and the moons Europa, Ganymede and Callisto, all thought to host internal oceans that can act as potential habitats for primitive life forms.

“We will study the conditions that may make those satellites habitable,” ESA head of science planning Fabio Favata told AFP of the first-ever spacecraft that will enter into orbit around one of Jupiter's moons.

“Those moons have a thick crust of ice below which there is likely an ocean. If there is anything, maybe bacterial life or whatever, it will be in those oceans,” he explained — adding this mission will not physically probe underneath the ice to actually check for signs of life.

“There are indications that there are such oceans. Liquid water is thought to be an ideal place where you can expect life to develop.

“Previous missions have given tantalizing hints of this ... but this will be the first time this is studied in detail.”

Last year, astronomers said a body of water as big as North America's Great Lakes could lie beneath Europa.

Favata said the spacecraft, its launch and operation will cost ESA about 830 million euros (US$1.1 billion).

The addition of scientific instruments is roughly expected to cost the agency's 19 member countries and international partners another 200 million to 250 million euros.

Once formal agreement is reached between member states on the payload and other details, the mission must get the final go-ahead from ESA's Science Program Committee, said Favata — expected around 2014.

JUICE will make the first measurements of the thickness of Europa's icy crust before entering orbit around Ganymede in 2032, studying its icy surface and internal ocean using cameras, spectrometers (an instrument used to measure properties of light) and radar.

Ganymede is the only moon in our Solar System known to generate its own magnetic field, and the scientists will also observe its interactions with the mother planet.

“Jupiter is the archetype for the giant planets of the Solar System and for many giant planets being found around other stars,” said Alvaro Gimenez Canete, ESA's director of science and robotic exploration.

“JUICE will give us better insight into how gas giants and their orbiting worlds form, and their potential for hosting life.”

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