We give you two words: ITALY and SPACE.
What comes to your mind?
A good chunk of you will be thinking of astronauts. Samantha Cristoforetti and Luca Parmitano are probably the first names that resonate in your head.
It’s not wrong but it’s perhaps a somewhat reductive vision of reality.
Italy’s contribution to space exploration is decidedly more substantial.
The JUICE mission: En route to Jupiter
On April 13, 2023, the Ariane 5 launcher should carry the JUICE probe into space.
The conditional is a must. Partly for superstition, partly because that is the nominal date of the launch, i.e. the departure date currently established but which could be postponed if there were problems related, for example, to unfavorable weather conditions. That’s why there is normally a date – here April 13th – but also a “launch window”, which for JUICE will close on April 30th.
But what the heck is JUICE? Where you go? To do what?
The ultimate goal is Jupiter. Or better, the icy moons of Jupiter: Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.
A destination openly declared by the name of the mission: JUICE in fact stands for JUpiter ICy moons Explorer.
Told like this it almost seems trivial. In short, let’s send another satellite into space to analyze something. What will it be? We have other satellites that analyze or observe things, we’ve had them in the past, we’ll have them in the future.
And then you know, we’re not going to the moon, we’re not going to Mars, there are no people on board… Why should we care?
Why Juice is a VERY Italian mission.
Giuseppe Sarri at the helm of Juice
Giuseppe Sarri, Project Manager of the JUICE mission, ESA
To guide the mission is there Giuseppe Sarri, who works for ESA – the European Space Agency – for 30 years.
“Project Manager of the JUICE planetary mission at European Space Agency“, dice il profilo LinkedIn di Sarri.
Our Fjona Cakalli, returning from a trip to the ESA spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, asked him to tell us about the objectives of the mission:
“The Juice mission has two basic purposes.
The first is explore the Jupiter system. Jupiter has many moons, has a ring system and therefore is a small solar system. The theme is to try to understand how solar systems are formed and how they evolve.
The second purpose, which is extremely exciting, is understand if we are alone in the universe. And this is done in two ways: one way is to put telescopes in orbit and look at other stars, see if there are planets around other stars. The second way, which is more direct, is to send probes into our solar system where there are moons and planets that can potentially support life. Jupiter is a large planet, it has 3 moons, which are called Europa, Ganymede and Callisto; these moons are icy moons in the sense that there is a very thick blanket of ice on the outside but internally there is liquid water, fundamental elements to support life such as carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen, a source of energy… They are all conditions that may allow life to exist or to develop in the future.”
“Vita” obviously does not correspond to a Jovian version of ET and any other alien you have seen in the cinema. In this case it’s about micro-organisms that is, very small living beings, in the order of a millionth of a metre, which are usually unicellular, therefore composed of a single cell.
So put aside the theories about extraterrestrials or your hopes of turning our existence into a complex episode of Star Trek.
But that doesn’t make the JUICE mission any less important.
On the contrary, we are faced with scientifically relevant objectives, for our past and probably also for our future.
Precisely for this reason, ESA spent over a decade on this mission, taking care of every single detail.
JUICE is also an L-class mission.
L come Large.
And yes, ESA uses a classification that resembles the sizes of our clothes.
But what does “L-class mission” actually mean? It means it is “large” due to the size and weight of the satellite – no less than 6 tons – and due to the size of the budget. Two things that – as he explained to us Giulio Pinzan, Juice Spacecraft Operations Engineer from ESA – normally go hand in hand.
How do we get the information we need?
A legitimate question. Also because seen from the outside the probe looks like a big cube with wings.
The thing is, that very heavy cube has inside 10 different instruments who will be responsible for collecting tens of gigabytes of data.
And this is where Italy comes into play again.
We have not only given birth to Giuseppe Sarri but to a flood of scientists who have helped create the tools that are now positioned within JUICE.
Copyright: Tatiana Boretti/Synthesis
Let’s take, for example, JANUS e MAJIS.
JANUS And a high-resolution camera that operates in the visible and infrared optical bands. Which essentially means that it sees what we see but with the plus of infrared.
What is it for? To get information about surface composition of the frozen moons, counting on a clearly superior quality compared to that offered by the predecessor of JUICE, the Galileo probe which in the 1990s explored and analyzed the Jovian system on behalf of NASA.
JANUS, acronym of Jovis, Amorum ac Natorum Undique Scrutator (which, if our rusty Latin does not deceive us, should mean “Scruter of Jupiter, of his loves and of his children”), was created thanks to the contribution and scientific guidance of the Parthenope University of Naples and the National Institute of Astrophysics (INAF). Instead, it was JANUS that physically brought life to life Leonardothe former Finmeccanica, which has been operating in the defense, aerospace and security sectors for decades.
Leonardo also gave birth to MAGICa Chyperspectral amera that will allow us to understand the chemical composition of the moons, necessary to understand their effective habitability and their ability to host life.
Building these tools – as you can imagine – was not easy.
“The big challenge for JANUS and MAJIS is the Jupiterian environment – he explained to us Henry Suetta, Leonardo’s space and optronics research and development manager – Very low temperatures, large temperature variations, a lot of radiation and electrostatic charges, even plasma in certain areas. So choice of materials and construction techniques able to build these mechanics in such a difficult environment.”
Enrico Suetta, Leonardo’s space and optronics research and development manager
However, this is not the only difficult element in the construction of delicate and fundamental objects such as the JUICE tools. In fact, the probe should leave in less than a month but will be operational in 2031, after 8 years of travel.
“We know very well that today’s choices, when the mission is operational, will probably be superseded by more modern technology, however they are usually choices made with advanced, not extreme technologies, because we still have to guarantee functioning so we can’t take excessive risks. The accumulated experience is what in the meantime makes you understand what you will use in the next mission. This also helps you for the conception of the ones that will come later“Continued Suetta.
“We are convinced that we have worked well and therefore we are also convinced that the reliability of the machines is very high, and that therefore they are able to function normally both during the cruise phase, i.e. the movement from the Earth to Jupiter, and then during the operational phase of the mission for all the years that have been requested”, underlines Enrico Suetta.
But how do you come up with tools like MAJIS and JANUS?
“First of all thanks to a great expertise gained over the years. We have participated in many of these solar system science missions. I mention three for all: Cassini on Saturn, Rosetta on the comet, BepiColombo on Mercury. In addition to this there is obviously an organizational capacity to be able to plan an entire activity, such as that of these tools, which lasts about 5 years, 6 years, from when the contract is given to when we deliver and then launch. So from the engineering organization, to the project, the construction or the purchase of the parts, assembly, testing and final calibration.”
Leonardo’s experience was not only exploited for the instruments on board but also for the solar panels that will supply energy to the satellite. And no, they are not the same as the ones we use on Earth. They are ”…special because they are much more efficient than those normally used in the terrestrial environment. They are able to resist high radiation, low temperatures… They are obviously more expensive, this is inevitable having such a great specialization.”
The panels are also really very large: “In total we have over 80 square meters. In a month, they will be the biggest ever launched”.
The role of the Italian Space Agency
We talked about universities, the national institute of astrophysics, ESA… but the ASI – the Italian Space Agency – what does it do?
Angelo Olivieri, Italian Delegate to the JUICE Steering Committee
We asked Angelo Olivieri, Italian Delegate to the JUICE Steering Committee: “ASI’s role in this mission is a fundamental one. First of all because the creation of four instruments on board this mission was possible thanks to the ASI funding and also great to the management that ASI has carried out in the…