DIAS trio lends expertise to ESA mission that is checking for life on Jupiter

11 Apr 2023

Prof Caitriona Jackman. Image: DIAS

The DIAS-based scientists worked on radio and plasma wave equipment that will be used to probe whether Jupiter can support life.

A group of Irish-based scientists will attend the upcoming launch of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) latest Jupiter-focused mission in Germany.

The three scientists – Dr Mika Holmberg, Prof Caitriona Jackman and Dr Corentin Louis ­– are all based at Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS).

They contributed to ESA’s Juice mission, which is focused on Jupiter and three of its large moons, Callisto, Europa and Ganymede.

Juice will launch on Thursday, 13 April at the European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt. As well as conducting detailed observations of Jupiter and its moons, the mission will investigate the potential for alien life.

Juice is an ESA first in that it is one of the first European-led missions to the outer solar system. It will also be the first spacecraft to go into orbit around a moon other than Earth’s moon if it launches successfully on Thursday.

The Irish team of DIAS scientists was led by Jackman. She heads up the DIAS Planetary Magnetospheres Research Group.

Her team worked on the radio and plasma wave instrument which will be carried by Juice when it launches. The instrument will characterise the radio emission and plasma environment of Jupiter and her moons.

It will be able to measure the saltiness of the oceans under the moons and look for evidence of atmospheres on the moons. Exploring these conditions will tell scientists if Jupiter can support life.

Commenting ahead of the trio’s journey to Germany for the launch, Jackman said the project was a “very exciting mission to be a part of”.

“We are on the verge of enormous breakthroughs in our understanding of the Jupiter system. Several of the moons that Juice will study are the most likely candidates for habitability in our solar system beyond Earth, so we are hopeful that this mission will help bring us closer to answering one of the most important questions that is facing humanity today – if we are alone in the universe.”

Jackman said the launch was the culmination of years of hard work from scientists across the world. “It will be very special to have such cutting-edge data arriving in Ireland for the first time,” she added.

Ireland is one of 23 different countries to have contributed to the mission, while DIAS is one of an elite group of 18 research centres to be involved.

DIAS celebrated 75 years in operation last year. It has been at the forefront of Irish space research for many decades, as its CEO and registrar, Dr Eucharia Meehan, pointed out.

“DIAS has a long history in being at the forefront of Ireland’s involvement in cutting-edge space research, most recently with the [James] Webb Space Telescope, and now our contribution to the Juice mission. We are very proud of the work of our researchers and we are looking forward to seeing the first images from the spacecraft in a few months’ time.”

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Blathnaid O’Dea was a Careers reporter at Silicon Republic until 2024.