Southwest Research Institute scientists excited by JUNO’s images of Europa

NASA’s Juno mission has excited scientists with new information coming from Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. It is theorized that there is an ocean that could possibly harbor life beneath Europa’s ice sheet. Juno was able to take a small set of high-resolution images of the moon’s surface. TPR’s Jerry Clayton recently spoke with Scott Bolton, who is a director at Juno

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity

Clayton: Can you give us a brief overview of the Juno mission??

Bolton: Juno was launched in 2011 and arrived at Jupiter in 2016 and entered a unique orbit that is above Jupiter’s poles. So it is the first spacecraft to actually pass over the South and North Poles in its orbits.

It completed its main mission last year in 2021, and that was to chart over 32 orbits of Jupiter to understand its composition, internal structure and polar magnetosphere, and to look at the atmosphere deep below the cloud tops for the first time.

And we finished that last year and went into an extended mission at the end of the summer that includes these close flybys of the Galilean moons and will also eventually allow us to explore the rings of Jupiter.

Clayton: And what do these latest images of Europa show??

Bolton: We were flying to Europe the other day actually and we were very close and traveling very fast. So in just a few minutes we got a lot of data and included some special images from our color camera called the Junocam, which was able to get about a kilometer resolution of Europa, which is in a region that hasn’t been well imaged before.

So we were able to really see some details of parts of Europe that we hadn’t seen before. We also have a special camera that’s actually used for stargazing, so it’s special for low light and takes a very high-resolution picture right at the closest approach, just a few hundred meters away.

And that was on the night side, because he was looking at the brightness of Jupiter. So there are several images. Some are from the day side and we have one image from the night side.

Clayton: And I guess the big question is, do these images show any evidence of water?

Bolton: Well, we’re not sure. We are still interpreting it. But there are some who believe that some residual water may show up as dark areas. And we certainly see them.

And the reason is that if there was water that was salty and it came and touched the surface at some point and evaporated or sank back or disappeared that it could leave a residue that would then be hit by radiation from Jupiter’s magnetosphere and which it can turn some of the salts or different materials into a dark color.

And we’re certainly seeing some of that. We didn’t see any evidence of the jets that were supposed to exist where you have geysers shooting out of the water ice. We have seen no evidence of this.


JUNO Image showing twin ridges on Europa’s surface

Clayton: Will it take you longer to process these pictures and understand what you’re seeing?

Bolton: Absolutely. I mean, we’re just getting started, we’re just looking at them and we’re amazed at the detail we can see. We can see shadows and structure. You can see where the ridges are.

And one of the images in particular, part of the image is right next to the terminator. So if you take your binoculars and look at the moon, the best place to look is along the border of day and night, what we call the terminator, because you see the hills, you see the terrain in the shadows, and that’s what we see on Europa.

So we can see some of that. But it will take us some time to understand what we are seeing and then compare it to our other data. We have many tools besides the images, and one of them actually looks at the ice at different depths.

So, we’re going to try to see if we can figure out the structure of ice. And, you know, we see that Europa looks very cracked and broken, and that could represent inside the ice as well.

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