The mission of the NASA-funded space probe is to deliver the first measurements of a large, icy moon orbiting Jupiter, the Europa mission’s lead scientist says.
The mission, dubbed MESSENGER, was launched in 2016, but a Russian probe is now orbiting the moon.
The probe’s mission is to explore Europa to better understand its surface conditions, its climate and the presence of life on its surface.
Europa, the largest moon of Jupiter, has a thick, liquid crust and is the second largest object in the Solar System after Earth.
It orbits the planet in a disk and has an ocean, which may be the only one on the ocean planet.
Scientists say the moon is covered in thick, icy ice that could be frozen solid and thus potentially harbor microbes that could have a significant impact on the planet.
According to the mission’s website, the probe is scheduled to reach Jupiter on August 20, 2021.
It will arrive at the moon at an altitude of about 2,300 miles (3,400 kilometers), and will stay there for several days, the mission said in a statement.
It is expected to capture images of Europa and measure its gravity.
“We have all the data we need to understand the composition and surface properties of the icy, rocky and gas giant and are planning a high-precision orbit,” said study lead author Sergey Tkachev of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California.
However, a number of problems remain before the probe will be able to take its first measurements, including that the probe has not been equipped with a large enough instrument for the job, he added.
One of the key issues is that the mission has not yet been able to find any suitable orbit for the probe to take on, as well as other issues that prevent it from reaching Jupiter.
The spacecraft’s primary target is Europa, which has a thickness of up to 3,600 miles (6,000 kilometers), but the mission was hoping to reach Europa in the 2030s.
A number of other scientists, including researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, have also said that the spacecraft could not reach Europa by 2020.
“If we don’t find the right orbit for MESSENER to land on Europa in 2022, the orbit will not be possible,” said Tkachatsky.
“The only way to land it on Europa is to make it a small orbit with a low-density orbit, and then we’ll find an orbit with an appropriate density,” said NASA’s Rob Manning.
In addition, scientists said the spacecraft would need to be able access the surface of Europa, and there are still other issues.
The researchers have said the probe could be destroyed if it did not perform its mission, and it is still unclear if the probe would survive if it does not reach Jupiter.
This article originally appeared on New Scientist and is reprinted with permission.