The European Space Agency (Esa) is to mount a billion-euro mission to Jupiter and its icy moons.
The probe, called Juice, has just been approved at a meeting of member state delegations in Paris.
It would be built in time for a launch in 2022, although it would be a further eight years before it reached the Jovian system.
The mission has emerged from a five-year-long competition to find the next “large class” space venture in Europe.
Juice stands for JUpiter ICy moon Explorer. The concept proposes an instrument-packed, nearly five-tonne satellite to be sent out to the Solar System’s biggest planet, to make a careful investigation of three of its biggest moons.
The spacecraft would use the gravity of Jupiter to initiate a series of close fly-bys around Callisto and Europa, and then finally to put itself in a settled orbit around Ganymede.
Emphasis would be put on “habitability” – in trying to understand whether there is any possibility that these moons could host microbial life.
Callisto, Europa and Ganymede are all suspected to have oceans of water below their icy surfaces. As such, they may have environments conducive to simple biology.
I used to think finding microbial life would be no big deal, but now I have a theory about microbes being the way a large intelligent species would travel through space, so I’m much more interested. The entire genetic make up of a person fits in the head of a sperm cell (5 microns) which is the size of a large bacterium. That’s you. You started as something the size of a bacteria. We know that some bacteria can survive in space and can remain viable after 25 to 40 million years as a spore.