A European space probe was launched on Friday, embarking on a decade-long journey to explore Jupiter and three of its icy moons that may be hiding oceans.

His journey began with an early liftoff of the European Ariane rocket from French Guiana, South America.

It will take eight years for the explorer robot, nicknamed Juice, to reach Jupiter, where it will examine not only the largest planet in the solar system, but also Europa, Callisto and Ganymede. Scientists believe that the three ice-covered moons harbor subterranean oceans, where marine life could exist.

Then, in what would possibly be the most impressive feat of all, Juice will attempt to orbit Ganymede. No space probe has ever orbited a moon other than ours.

With so many moons — at last 95 count — astronomers consider Jupiter a mini solar system in its own right, and missions like Juice are long overdue.

“We’re not going to detect life with Juice,” stressed European Space Agency project scientist Olivier Witasse.

But learning more about the moons and their potential seas will bring scientists one step closer to answering the question of life elsewhere. “That will definitely be the most interesting aspect of the mission,” he said.

Juice takes a long, winding road to Jupiter, covering 6.6 billion miles.

It will descend within 200 kilometers of Callisto and 400 kilometers from Europa and Ganymede, performing 35 flybys while circling Jupiter. Then it will brake to orbit Ganymede, the primary target of the 1.6 billion euro (nearly CA2.5 billion) mission.

Ganymede is not only the largest moon in the solar system – it surpasses Mercury – but also has its own magnetic field with dazzling auroras at the poles.

Even more appealing would be an underground ocean containing more water than land. The same goes for Europa and its geysers, and heavily cratered Callisto, a potential destination for humans given its distance from Jupiter’s debilitating radiation belts, according to the Carnegie Institution’s Scott Sheppard, who is not involved in the Juice mission.

“Our solar system’s planet-oceans are the most likely to have life, so these large moons of Jupiter are prime candidates for research,” said Sheppard, a moon hunter who helped discover more than a hundred in remote parts of the solar system.

The spacecraft, the size of a small bus, won’t reach Jupiter until 2031, relying on gravity-assisted flybys of Earth and our Moon, as well as Venus.

“These things take time – and they change our world,” said Planetary Society CEO Bill Nye. The California-based group that advocates for space exploration hosted a party to virtually follow the launch.

King Philippe and Prince Gabriel of Belgium, as well as two astronauts – French Thomas Pesquet and German Matthias Maurer – were among the spectators in French Guiana. A risk of lightning led to the cancellation of Thursday’s launch attempt.

Juice – short for Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer – will spend three years buzzing Callisto, Europa and Ganymede. The space probe will attempt to orbit Ganymede in late 2034, circling the moon for nearly a year before flight controllers send it crashing in 2035, or later s there is enough fuel left.

Europa is particularly attractive to scientists looking for signs of life beyond the earth. However, Juice will keep his encounters with Europa to a minimum due to the intense radiation found there so close to Jupiter.

Juice’s sensitive electronics are encased in lead to protect them from radiation. The 6,350 kilogram spacecraft is also shrouded in thermal blankets – temperatures near Jupiter hover around minus 230 degrees Celsius. And its solar panels stretch 27 meters from end to end to absorb as much sunlight as far from the sun.

Late next year, NASA will send an even more isolated space probe to Jupiter, the long-awaited Europa Clipper, which will beat Juice on its way to Jupiter by more than a year, as it will be launched on the rocket the most powerful of SpaceX. The two space probes will team up to study Europa like never before.

NASA has long dominated Jupiter exploration, beginning with the 1970s flybys of the Pioneer and then Voyager twins. Only one space probe continues to hum near Jupiter: NASA’s Juno, which just recorded its 50th orbit since 2016.

Europe provided nine of Juice’s science instruments, with NASA providing just one.

If Juice confirms subterranean oceans suitable for past or present life, Mr. Witasse said the next step will be to send drills to penetrate the icy crusts and possibly even a submarine.

“We have to be creative,” he said. We can always think that it is science fiction, but sometimes science fiction can join reality. »