London: After a successful mission to Pluto last week, scientists are preparing to launch a probe to search for life on the icy moons of Saturn and Jupiter, media reports said.
Earlier this week, the European Space Agency announced that it would collaborate with aircraft manufacturing giant Airbus to launch a space probe in 2022 to look for extra-terrestrial existence on the four icy moons — Titan, Saturn’s largest moon and the ocean-bearing worlds of Europa, Ganymede and Callisto of Jupiter, the Telegraph newspaper reported on Saturday.
Dubbed as the “Juice” (Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer) spacecraft, the mission will look whether the frozen worlds that surround the two giant gaseous planets could support extra-terrestrial life.
“All our current exciting and fascinating space missions have been dealing with either understanding the origins of life and our Solar System or finding exoplanets (planets that revolve around a star other than the Sun) that might host Earth-like planets,” Daniel Brown, an astronomy expert from Nottingham Trent University, was quoted as saying.
“But, life doesn’t have to exist on planets like Earth, it could also have developed in oceans within icy moons around Jupiter like gas giants,” he added.
It is hoped that micro-organisms or even fish-like creatures may be present in deep-water hydrothermal vents, known as ‘black smokers’, which are known to harbour life on Earth.
“Juice will be exploring the Titan and three Galilean moons of Jupiter thought to harbour oceans under their surface. It will give us a much better understanding what lies beneath the icy crust and how it could offer an environment for life to develop.”
The probe will be launched on an Ariane 5 rocket which would spend seven and a half years slingshotting around Earth, Mars and Venus to pick up enough speed to get to the Jupiter system with as little fuel as possible.
For three and a half years, the spacecraft will sweep around the giant planet, exploring its turbulent atmosphere, enormous magnetosphere, and tenuous set of dark rings, as well as studying the icy moons — Ganymede, Europa, and Callisto.
The probe will start with Callisto before making two fly-bys of Europa, where it will study the icy surface.
A NASA spacecraft 4 billion miles from Earth yielded its first close-up pictures Wednesday of the most distant celestial object ever explored, depicting what looks like a reddish snowman.
Ultima Thule, as the small, icy object has been dubbed, was found to consist of two fused-together spheres, one of them three times bigger than the other, extending about 21 miles (33 kilometers) in length.
NASA’s New Horizons, the spacecraft that sent back pictures of Pluto 3-plus years ago, swept past the ancient, mysterious object early on New Year’s Day. It is 1 billion miles (1.6 billion kilometers) beyond Pluto.
On Tuesday, based on early, fuzzy images taken the day before, scientists said Ultima Thule resembled a bowling pin. But when better, closer pictures arrived, a new consensus emerged Wednesday.
“The bowling pin is gone. It’s a snowman!” lead scientist Alan Stern informed the world from Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory , home to Mission Control. The bowling pin image is “so 2018,” joked Stern, who is with the Southwest Research Institute.
The celestial body was nicknamed Ultima Thule — meaning “beyond the known world” — before scientists could say for sure whether it was one object or two. With the arrival of the photos, they are now calling the bigger sphere Ultima and the smaller one Thule.
Thule is estimated to be 9 miles (14 kilometers) across, while Ultima is thought to be 12 miles (19 kilometers).
Scientist Jeff Moore of NASA’s Ames Research Center said the two spheres formed when icy, pebble-size pieces coalesced in space billions of years ago. Then the spheres slowly spiraled closer to each other until they gently touched — as slowly as parking a car here on Earth at just a mile or two per hour — and stuck together.
Despite the slender connection point, the two lobes are “soundly bound” together, according to Moore.
Scientists have ascertained that the object takes about 15 hours to make a full rotation. If it were spinning fast — say, one rotation every three or four hours — the two spheres would rip apart.
Stern noted that the team has received less than 1 percent of all the data stored aboard New Horizons. It will take nearly two years to get it all.
The two-lobed object is what is known as a “contact binary.” It is the first contact binary NASA has ever explored. Having formed 4.5 billion years ago, when the solar system taking shape, it is also the most primitive object seen up close like this.
About the size of a city, Ultima Thule has a mottled appearance and is the color of dull brick, probably because of the effects of radiation bombarding the icy surface, with brighter and darker regions.
Both spheres are similarly red, while the barely perceptible neck connecting the two lobes is noticeably less red, probably because of particles falling down the steep slopes into that area.
So far, no moons or rings have been detected. And scientists said there were no obvious impact craters in the latest photos but a few apparent “divots” and suggestions of hills and ridges. But better images should yield definitive answers in the days and weeks ahead.
Clues about the surface composition of Ultima Thule should start rolling in by Thursday. Scientists believe the icy exterior is probably a mix of water, methane and nitrogen, among other things.
The snowman picture was taken a half-hour before the spacecraft’s closest approach early Tuesday, from a distance of about 18,000 miles (28,000 kilometers).
Ultima Thule is an exquisite time machine — the most primitive object ever seen close up — that should provide clues to the origins of our solar system.
It’s neither a comet nor an asteroid, according to Stern, but rather “a primordial planetesimal.” Unlike comets and other objects that have been altered by the sun over time, Ultima Thule is in its pure, original state: It’s been in the deep-freeze Kuiper Belt on the fringes of our solar system from the beginning.
“This thing was born somewhere between 99 percent and 99.9 percent of the way back to T-zero (liftoff) in our solar system, really amazing,” Stern said. He added: “We’ve never seen anything like this before. It’s not fish or fowl. It’s something that’s completely different.”
Still, he said, when all the data comes in, “there are going to be mysteries of Ultima Thule that we can’t figure out.” (VOA)