Swiss measurement instruments on the way to Jupiter in search for potential life

Exploring Jupiter with Juice space mission

Is there a chance that other life exists in our solar system? A new space mission wants to explore this question, among other things with measuring instruments from Switzerland.

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The European Space Agency’s Juice space mission is scheduled to launch on 13 April to explore Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system and three of its more than 80 moons. Juice will carry 10 state-of-the-art instruments, comprising the most powerful remote sensing and geophysical payloads ever flown to the outer solar system. Its main mission will be to explore the huge planet's three largest icy moons, in the hope of determining whether life is possible under their icy crusts.

Swiss instruments on board

The University of Bern is contributing the NIM mass spectrometer to the Juice mission and is involved in two other instruments: the Submillimetre Wave Instrument (SWI) and the GALA laser altimeter. All three projects are the result of over a decade of research and development in the Swiss capital.

Studying the particles in Jupiter’s icy moons’ atmosphere

The Neutral Ion Mass Spectrometer (NIM) has been developed and built at the Physics Institute of the University of Bern under the direction of Peter Wurz. NIM will study the chemical and isotopic composition and distribution of particles in the atmospheres of Jupiter's icy moons as well as the physical parameters of these atmospheres, and is part of the larger Particle Environment Package.

Two additional contributions

In addition to NIM, two other instruments with Bernese participation will be on board Juice. Bernese researchers have developed a module for the GALA altimeter, which will study the topography of Jupiter's moon Ganymede. In addition, the University of Bern has developed the optics and calibration unit for the SWI, which will measure Jupiter's stratosphere and the atmospheres and surfaces of Jupiter's icy moons.

Looking for life under the thick ice layer

With the upcoming mission, space researchers want to study the moons Ganymede, Callisto and Europa. The average temperature on the surface of the icy moons is below minus 140 degrees Celsius. Previous missions to Jupiter suggest that there are oceans under the thick ice layer. And where there are oceans, life is theoretically possible. During its roughly eight-year journey to Jupiter, Juice will complete flybys of Venus, Earth and the Earth-Moon system.

Overview of the long journey to Jupiter for ESA’s space mission «Juice». (Source: ESA)

Overview of the long journey to Jupiter for ESA’s space mission «Juice».

Long tradition of space missions

Switzerland, and the University of Bern in particular, has a long tradition in space missions and already played an important role in the first moon landing in 1969. When the second man, Buzz Aldrin, stepped out of the lunar module on 21 July 1969, the first thing he did was to unfurl the Bernese solar wind sail and plant it into the ground on the moon, even before the American flag. With CHEOPS, the University of Bern even shares responsibility with ESA for a whole mission.

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