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:

JUICE

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?

Let’s Go to Alpha Centauri

If you haven’t read Across the Universe by Beth Revis, you should.  It’s got science, political intrigue, and a healthy dose of human nature—everything a science fiction novel should have.  It’s set on a space ship carrying colonists to a new planet in Alpha Centauri, the nearest star to our own Solar System.  Until recently, scientists assumed Alpha Centauri couldn’t have planets, but new discoveries have called that into question.

Alpha Centauri is a binary star, meaning it is actually two stars orbiting each other.  A third star, Proxima Centauri, may also be part of the Alpha Centauri system, or it may simply be passing nearby.  It seemed impossible for planets to form and survive with the gravity of all these stars pulling in so many different directions, yet scientists recently found a planet orbiting another binary star, Kepler-16.

Right now, the Planetary Society is gathering funding to take a closer look at Alpha Centauri.  The Planetary Society is a nonprofit organization started by Carl Sagan, among others, and currently headed by Bill Nye the Science Guy.  They plan to rent time at an observatory in Chile to watch Alpha Centauri for twenty nights straight, hoping a planet will reveal itself during that time.

If you want to help, click here to donate to the Planetary Society’s Alpha Centari project (select Finds Exo-earths on the drop down menu where is says “direct my gift to”).  Just think how cool it will be if they do find a planet and you can say you helped!  By the way, I am a member of the Planetary Society.  It doesn’t cost much to join, and your membership fees will help this and other research on space and space travel.  If you’re interested in joining, click here.

According to some experts, the discovery of a planet—especially a habitable one—in Alpha Centauri would lead to immediate planning for an unmanned mission to check it out.  Later, we might decide to send human colonists, just like in Across the Universe.  The folks at SpaceRip.com have put together an excellent documentary on what it will take to reach Alpha Centauri.  Click here to see it.

Also, Centauri Dreams recently posted an interesting analysis of Proxima Centauri.  It’s extremely unlikely Proxima has any planets, but not impossible.  Click here to find out why.