Sciency Words A to Z: JUICE

Welcome to a special A to Z Challenge edition of Sciency Words!  Sciency Words is an ongoing series here on Planet Pailly about the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms.  In today’s post, J is for:


Speaking as a space enthusiast and a citizen of the United States, I have to confess I’m a bit disappointed with the status of the American space program.  While there have been some success stories—New Horizons, Curiosity, Scott Kelly’s year in space—I can’t help but feel like NASA has spent the last decade or so floundering.

However, it’s encouraging to see that so many other space agencies around the world are starting to pick up the slack.  My favorite example of this is the JUICE mission, a project of the European Space Agency (E.S.A.).

Astrobiologists have taken a keen interest in the icy moons of Jupiter.  There’s compelling evidence that one of those moons (Europa) has an ocean of liquid water beneath its surface.  There’s also a growing suspicion that two more of those moons (Ganymede and Callisto) may have subsurface oceans as well.

The original plan was for NASA and the E.S.A. to pool their resources for one big, giant mission to the Jupiter system.  But then the 2008 financial crisis hit.  The U.S. Congress was loath to spend money on anything—especially space stuff.  “Due to the unavailability of the proposed international partnerships […]”—that’s how this E.S.A. report describes the matter.

So the E.S.A. decided to go it alone. Personally, I think this was a very brave move.  E.S.A. has never done a mission to the outer Solar System before, not without NASA’s help.  But there has to be a first time for everything, right?  And so JUICE—the JUpiter ICy moons Explorer—began.  It’s not my favorite acronym, but it works.

According to E.S.A.’s website, JUICE will conduct multiple flybys of Europa and Callisto before settling into orbit around Ganymede.  You may be wondering why JUICE won’t be orbiting Europa.  This is in large part because of the radiation environment around Jupiter.  Europa may be more exciting to astrobiologists, but Ganymede is a safer place to park your spacecraft.

Meanwhile, NASA has recovered much of the funding it lost after the 2008 financial crisis, and they’re once again planning to send their own mission to the Jupiter system.  So maybe NASA and E.S.A. will get to explore those icy moons together after all!  Or maybe not.  According to this article from the Planetary Society, NASA’s budget is under threat once again.

I guess we’ll have to wait and see, but no matter what happens to NASA’s budget, E.S.A. seems fully committed to JUICE.  So speaking as a space enthusiast, at least I have that to look forward to.

Next time on Sciency Words A to Z, how do you measure the size of an alien civilization?

Sciency Words: SOHO

Sciency Words BIO copy

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Every Friday, we take a look at a new and interesting scientific term to help us all expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s word is:


If you want to do any serious research about the Sun, you will soon come across this name: SOHO, short for the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory. It is a project of international cooperation between NASA and ESA (the European Space Agency). The Europeans built it, NASA launched it into space and is now responsible for operating and maintaining it.

SOHO is positioned between the Sun and Earth, and its mission is to monitor and study solar activity. Launched in December of 1995, SOHO was only supposed to be in operation for about two years, yet despite several malfunctions, the thing is still running nearly two decades later.

Much of what we currently know about the Sun is thanks to SOHO (which is why the name came up so often in my research).

  • SOHO observes activity on the Sun’s surface (like Moreton waves), and it has provided us with the first ever images of what’s going on beneath the surface.
  • SOHO is part of our early warning system, helping protect our technologically advanced civilization in case something like the Carrington Event ever happens again.
  • SOHO samples solar ejecta, allowing us to find out what exactly the Sun is spewing into space.
  • Remember that weird thing about the Sun’s temperature? SOHO is helping investigate that too.

Ja12 SOHOSo as we end our month-long adventures with the Sun, let’s give a big round of applause to the SOHO spacecraft, one of the hardest working spacecraft in the Solar System, and let’s hope that it will miraculously keep working for many years to come.

Starting Monday and continuing throughout the month of February, we will turn our attention to the Planet Mercury.


Bad news, everyone.  Our worst nightmare is about to come true.  No, I don’t mean the one where you show up to work/school with no clothes on.  I mean that other one.  The one full of robotic super snakes.  Soon, those robo-snakes will be real.

Snake meets Robo-Snake
Snake meets robo-snake.

They’re designing these things for the purpose of exploration.  The European Space Agency wants future Mars rovers to bring little, robotic snake companions.  These robo-snakes could slither around on the Martian surface, crawling into those tight spaces rovers just can’t go.

But I think we all know what’s going to happen.  One day, when the robots rise up against us to overthrow humanity, we’ll see swarms of robo-snakes coming at us.  Thanks, European Space Agency.

P.S.: As if robotic snakes weren’t bad enough, scientists are also working on a robotic octopus.  Click here to read about that.