Two NASA scientists warned of the danger Jupiter's radiation will pose in its 2030 mission to the solar system's largest planet.
In October 2024, NASA will launch the Europa Clipper mission as it sends an orbiter toward one of Jupiter's most famous moons where it is expected to arrive in April 2030. At the point of arrival, the Europa Clipper will conduct 44 close flybys of the moon with unique flight paths each time to properly study almost the entire surface of Europa - which is around 90% the size of Earth's moon.
Europa has long been of keen interest in NASA's galactic search for extraterrestrial life as it has been described as an "ocean world" by scientists due to the water believed to be hidden below its icy surface - a characteristic that makes it similar to Earth and therefore prime to inhabit life.
NASA Opens up About Radiation Dangers on Jupiter 2030 Mission
On the Europa Clipper's five-and-a-half-year journey to Jupiter's moon, it will come into contact with some of the harshest radiation in the solar system, requiring some tough shielding to ensure its sophisticated hardware is still operable upon arrival. Enter, the vault.
The vault essentially serves as the Europa Clipper's armor to protect the internal technology against the aforementioned radiation. A new update from NASA on the mission noted its recent placement of the final piece of the vault on the spacecraft on Friday, October 7, around one year ahead of its Fall 2024 launch.
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)'s Insoo Jun, an expert on space radiation, explained the "vault is designed to reduce the radiation environment to acceptable levels for most of the electronics.”
Jupiter’s gigantic magnetic field is 20,000 times as strong as Earth’s and spins rapidly in time with the planet’s 10-hour rotation period. This field captures and accelerates charged particles from Jupiter’s space environment to create powerful radiation belts.
Jupiter faces constant radiation that NASA compares to "space weather" as it will attack everything in the region with damaging particles. The radiation belts come due to a magnetic field around 20,000 times that of Earth that captures and accelerates charged particles from Jupiter's space to form these belts.
Warning of these dangers, Jun added how Jupiter, the solar system's largest planet, has the "most intense radiation environment other than the Sun," noting it will impact "every aspect" of the Europa Clipper mission:
“Jupiter has the most intense radiation environment other than the Sun in the solar system. The radiation environment is affecting every aspect of the mission.”
JPL planetary scientist and icy moon specialist Tom Nordheim elaborated on the subject and explained how the radiation may even be intense enough to be causing noticeable color changes to Europa's surface.
Nordheim explained how the evidence suggests the "reddish-brown color" visible on Europa comes due to Jupiter's "radiation processing:"
“Radiation on the surface of Europa is a major geologic modification process. When you look at Europa – you know, the reddish-brown color – scientists have shown that this is consistent with radiation processing.”
So even as engineers work to keep radiation out of Europa Clipper, scientists like Nordheim and Jun hope to use the space probe to study it.
Despite how the radiation will cause trouble for the Europa Clipper, NASA is hoping it will "help reveal the unique and challenging" environment around Jupiter thanks to its radiation monitoring unit and instruments:
“With a dedicated radiation monitoring unit, and using opportunistic radiation data from its instruments, Europa Clipper will help reveal the unique and challenging radiation environment at Jupiter.”
The Europa Clipper mission is currently expected to see its official launch in October 2024 in time to arrive at the Jupiter moon in April 2030.