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lunes, 19 de octubre 2020
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Colombian at the Forefront of Mission to Jupiter’s Moon

by Natalia Piedrahita Tamayo


Ricardo Restrepo, Universidad de Antioquia Physics Graduate. Photos: personal file.

Between the Earth and Europa, a Jupiter moon, there is a distance of 628.3 million kilometers. It would seem like an impassable ocean of space and time. That journey, which a NASA interplanetary space probe will embark on as from 2024, will be marked by the calculations and projections of Physicist and PhD Aerospace Engineer Ricardo Restrepo Gomez. He is part of a team of five engineers currently building the route that will guarantee the reconnaissance of the Galilean satellite. This satellite is a similar size to the Earth’s moon and has a crust of ice and oxygen in its thin atmosphere.

Even though Europa Clipper will not look for life directly, it will explore the moon’s capacity to host phenomena that allow life to develop. “To do this, we focus on understanding its composition, on confirming the existence of a liquid ocean under its icy crust, on observing its geological activity and the components of its atmosphere, surface and interior”, stated Restrepo Gomez, who graduated from Universidad de Antioquia, the cradle of his passion for cosmos phenomenology.

Ricardo’s challenge, his mission, is colossal: to structure the journey for the probe to leave Earth, get inserted into Jupiter and perform about fifty flybys of Europa. To guarantee the mission’s success, it must meet all the requirements from the scientists that participate in the commission. These are gathered in the seven instruments independently generated by institutions and universities led by JPL.

The main destination, from which this satellite will be observed in detail, is the giant planet. Restrepo Gomez explained it thus, “Europa Clipper will orbit around Jupiter and, while it does this, it will perform constant flybys of Europa. An orbiter around this moon wouldn’t last long because Europa lies within a harsh radiation field generated by Jupiter, so its electronics would be quickly destroyed. This is why the flyby strategy is necessary.”

It was projected that Europa Clipper would be launched with the Space Launch System, a super heavy-lift rocket made by NASA that would reach Jupiter three years later, in 2027. However, the Artemis mission, which will take humans to the moon, was given priority. Considering this scenario, another option will be to use SpaceX's Falcon Heavy. Since it needs gravity assists to get to the giant planet, it will take six years for the spacecraft to reach its destination.

12-frame mosaic that provides the highest-resolution view of the side of Jupiter’s moon Europa. It was obtained by the camera onboard NASA’s Galileo spacecraft on 25 November 1999. Image credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona.

However, what makes this moon so special? Exploration interests have centered on Europa over other worlds that have also shown elements of interest for science, since Europa has the three elements necessary for life: liquid water, the constituents of biomolecules (hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and sulfur) and sources of energy. Such a synthesis promoted the origin of life on Earth. Through the explorations of the Galileo mission and indirect calculations, it became known that a place in the universe hosts such conditions: Europa.

To study this moon, Clipper will use instruments such as a camera that will take pictures of the surface, a radar to investigate its geology, a magnetometer and several spectrometers. All these instruments will be used to capture the moon’s composition and map its oceans.

It will take the mission six years to get to Jupiter, which means it will probably get there in 2030. “On an interplanetary scale, it is not a very long time”, asserted Restrepo Gomez.

In a world going through a pandemic and in the midst of the uncertainty that it brings, efforts are being made to carry out the mission, and there is one particular thing about it. Once the probe leaves the Earth, it will continue its journey until it reaches its destination, no matter what happens back here.

  • In 1610, Galileo Galilei discovered four Jupiter satellites. One of them was Europa. It is the sixth largest satellite in the solar system, but it is the smallest of the Galilean moons (Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto). After the moon was discovered, Astronomer Simon Marius suggested its name, but science began to use it only around the middle of the 20th century.
  • Mythology tells about the abduction of Europa by Zeus. Since Zeus was in love with Europa, he turned into a white bull to dazzle her with his appearance and make her ride him. Once this was accomplished, he ran to the sea and took her to the island of Crete, where he made her queen.
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