If life is truly out there, there’s a good chance it’s on one of Jupiter’s moons. That’s why the European Space Agency (ESA) launched a new probe on Friday morning—sending it en route for an eight year road trip to the gas giant where it’ll take a closer look at the planet and its moons.
The Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer mission (also known as Juice) launched this morning from the Guiana Space Center in French Guiana on an Ariane 5 rocket. Within half an hour, the probe separated from the rocket and was yeeted towards Jupiter, where it’s slated to arrive in roughly eight years (remember: the solar system is big). During this time, it’ll rely on gravitational slingshots from Earth and Venus to yeet it all the way to the gas giant.
“Juice’s spectacular launch carries with it the vision and ambition of those who conceived the mission decades ago, the skill and passion of everyone who has built this incredible machine, the drive of our flight operations team, and the curiosity of the global science community,” Josef Aschbacher, the head of the ESA, said in a statement. “Together, we will keep pushing the boundaries of science and exploration in order to answer humankind’s biggest questions.”
Juice will specifically be probing three of Jupiter’s 80 moons: Callisto, Europa, and Ganymede. These moons are of particular interest because they likely hold a massive amount of water beneath their icy surfaces. Where there’s water, there might be life—which is why scientists are so fascinated in probing the satellites.
When it arrives in July 2031, it will spend nearly four years orbiting Jupiter itself. During this time, it’ll make 35 flybys of the three moons before rounding out the mission by orbiting Ganymede specifically. If and when that happens, it’ll mark the first time a spacecraft has ever orbited the moon in the outer solar system.
During flybys, Juice will specifically be probing magnetic signals of the three moons. This will help confirm both the presence and the magnitude of the oceans beneath their icy surfaces. Researchers are especially interested in Europa, as it’s suspected that the moon’s ocean is connected to hydrothermal vents on the surface—providing warm temperatures and food for life.
“Today, we have sent a suite of ground-breaking science instruments on a journey to Jupiter’s moons that will give us an exquisite close-up view that would have been unimaginable to previous generations,” Carole Mundell, the director of science for the ESA, said in a statement.
While all the attention is going to be on the icy moons, they’re not the only ones with the potential for life either. Jupiter’s magma and volcano covered moon Io might also be host to all of the recipes for alien life. It’s likely to be a target for yet another future moon mission to the gas giant.
For now, we’ll just have to play an eight year waiting game until it even reaches Jupiter. When that happens, we might finally have an answer to the question that humans have been asking forever: Are we alone in the universe?