A NASA spacecraft just saw the north pole of Europa, the icy moon of Jupiter, for the first time

Juno captured Europa's north pole region from a distance for the first-ever time. NASA officials stated that this was their first view of the region, and future flybys will provide a better view. (Image credit: NASA/SwRI/MSSS/Andrea Luck)
From afar, we now know the shape of Europa's north pole.

NASA's Juno spacecraft orbiting Jupiter captured a distant view of the icy moon. It appears to have water vapor that has apparently been created by plumes, and may be habitable.

This image was captured from a distance of nearly 50,000 miles (80,000 km) while Juno was on its primary mission to study Jupiter's atmosphere. Although the resolution is not perfect, individual pixels are rendered at approximately 31 to 37 miles (50-60 km) each. However, you can still see the changes in the light reflectivity or albedo on a bright moon.

Similar: Photos of Europa, Jupiter's mysterious and icy moon

According to Juno principal investigator Scott Bolton, the view will be better next year as the spacecraft zooms just a few hundred feet above that region.

Bolton, director of the Southwest Research Institute's space science and engineering division (SwRI), said that "this is a tantalizing instance and a taste for what is to come." The Europa results were briefly discussed during a larger discussion on 3D views of Jupiter’s atmosphere and the deep roots the persistent storm, known as the Great Red Spot.

Europa has been a well-known destination and has been photographed by spacecraft numerous times. In the 1970s, NASA's twin Pioneer spacecraft and twin Voyager spacecraft captured close-up images of Europa. They revealed an icy surface with cracks. Galileo, which orbited Jupiter's moons between 1995-2003, provided even more detail.

Many spacecraft have passed Europa on their way from other places. The Hubble Space Telescope, other telescopes on Earth and others also look at the moon occasionally. These views are limited by the fact that they have all been at or near the ecliptic. This is the plane on which the sun, moons, and planets of the solar system orbit.

Juno is, however, polar-orbiting and has provided unique views of Jupiter, including the stability and extent of its polarcyclones. Andrea Luck, a citizen scientist and JunoCam camera user, created the picture of Europa.

Although the press conference did no discuss science at Europa's poles the peer-reviewed research that has been done previously on transient water vapour at the south pole and attempted geologic mapping as close as possible to the poles was not discussed.

At least two missions major are scheduled to launch to Europa later in the decade. After launch in June 2022 by the European Space Agency's Jupiter ICy Moons Explorer (JUICE), NASA's Europa Clipper will launch in October 2024 and will be focusing on the moon. Both missions will reach Europa and operate there in the 2030s.

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