The University of Bern is on board a mission to Jupiter

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Artist impression of the Juice mission exploring the Jupiter system. © Spacecraf
Artist impression of the Juice mission exploring the Jupiter system. © Spacecraft: ESA/ATG medialab; Jupiter: NASA/ESA/J. Nichols (University of Leicester); Ganymede: NASA/JPL; Io: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona; Callisto and Europa: NASA/JPL/DLR © Spacecraft: ESA/ATG medialab; Jupiter: NASA/ESA/J. Nichols (University of Leicester); Ganymede: NASA/JPL; Io: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona; Callisto and Europa: NASA/JPL/DLR

The European Space Agency ESA-s Juice space mission is scheduled to start its journey to Jupiter on April 13, 2023. Once arrived, one of the goals of Juice is to search for traces of life on three of Jupiter’s icy moons. The University of Bern is contributing the NIM mass spectrometer to the mission and is involved in two other instruments: the SWI Sub-millimeter Wave Instrument and the GALA Laser Altimeter.

The European Space Agency ESA’s Juice (Jupiter’s Icy Moons Explorer) space probe is scheduled to begin its journey to Jupiter on board an ARIANE 5 rocket launched from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, on Thursday, April 13, 2023 at 2:15 p.m. After a roughly eight-year journey, Juice will arrive at Jupiter to explore the largest planet in our solar system and three of its more than 80 moons. These are the icy dark worlds Ganymede, Callisto, and Europa, ocean worlds where the average surface temperature is below minus 140 degrees Celsius.

The Juice mission aims to answer fundamental questions about the formation of Jupiter and its moons - and it also involves the search for signs of life. Ten scientific instruments are on board Juice. The University of Bern is contributing the NIM mass spectrometer (which is part of the Particle Environment Package PEP) to the mission and is involved in two other instruments: the SWI Sub-millimeter Wave Instrument and the GALA Laser Altimeter.

Bern's expertise in demand

Developing and constructing instruments for space missions has a long tradition at the University of Bern. For example, Bern is renowned worldwide for its proven expertise in the field of mass spectrometry. The Neutral and Ion Mass Spectrometer (NIM) was developed and built for the Juice mission in Bern under the leadership of Prof. Peter Wurz, Director of the University of Bern’s Physics Institute. It is part of the Particle Environment Package (PEP), which consists of six individual instruments. NIM will study the chemical and isotopic composition and distribution of particles in the atmospheres of Jupiter’s icy moons, and determine the physical parameters of their atmospheres., "Insights into how Jupiter and its moons formed and evolved are an important contribution to understanding the formation of the solar system in general," Wurz says.

The Institute of Applied Physics (IAP) at the University of Bern has developed the optics and calibration unit for the Sub-millimeter Wave Instrument (SWI) under the direction of Axel Murk. In fall 2020, the optics for the SWI were integrated and tested at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research. Murk, who heads the Microwave Physics division at IAP, explains: "The instrument will measure thermal radiation from Jupiter’s stratosphere in the sub-millimeter range to determine temperature distribution, composition, and winds in Jupiter’s atmosphere. The atmospheres as well as the surface properties of the moons will also be studied using the SWI." The IAP has been developing microwave radiometers for remote sensing of Earth’s atmosphere for many years. Their many years of experience in optical design and calibration made it possible to make an important contribution to the SWI, Murk points out.

Also on board Juice is the Ganymede Laser Altimeter (GALA), for which the Range Finder Module was developed at the Physics Institute under the leadership of Nicolas Thomas. "The GALA project is led by the German Aerospace Center (DLR). We are providing the range finder electronics, which were specially built by Thales-Alenia Space Switzerland in Zurich," explains Thomas, professor of astrophysics at the University of Bern and director of the National Center of Competence in Research (NCCR) PlanetS. He is one of the leading international experts in the field of remote-sensing instruments for space missions. Under his leadership, for example, the CaSSIS camera was built, which has been providing high-resolution, spectacular images of the surface of Mars since 2018.

"The fact that instruments with Bernese participation are now flying to Jupiter makes us proud and is proof of the great expertise at the University of Bern! And we are looking forward to the moment when we receive the first data from the instruments," Wurz says.

Search for life

Data from earlier space missions and model calculations suggest that there are subsurface oceans far below Ganymede’s and Europa’s surface-ice layers. Based on today’s knowledge, the oceans have all the properties that are needed for life to be formed and to evolve.

"Given the effort being put into the search for life, both with the remote sensing of exoplanets and with the study of promising objects in our solar system, I would expect to find signs of life within the next 20 years," Wurz says. "The question of whether there’s life out there at all may become the question of what forms of life are out there: simple life, evolved life, or even intelligent life, and how abundant life is."

We are happy to organize interviews and background discussions with those involved at the University of Bern. Please direct any inquiries to medien@unibe.ch.

2023/03/27