Brits will lead hunt for ET on Jupiter with a gadget built on a kitchen table
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Brits will lead the hunt for ET on Jupiter – with a gadget built on a kitchen table.
The European Space Agency's Juice probe – which will set off on its 390 million mile journey from Earth next month – will be carrying an array of state-of-the-art equipment to probe the Solar System's largest planet for signs of alien life.
Among 10 hi-tech devices aimed at rooting out extraterrestrials will be a magnetometer built by boffins at Imperial College, London.
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It will measure magnetic fields on the planet and its three moons Ganymede, Callisto and Europa.
Scientists expect to find vast oceans beneath the frozen surfaces which they believe are the most likely spots in the Solar System to find alien lifeforms.
The Daily Star was invited into the "clean room" inside Europe's Spaceport in French Guiana to see engineers putting the final touches to the Juice capsule before it is loaded aboard the Ariane 5 rocket which will propel it into deep space.
The magnetometer – built to withstand a hazardous eight-year journey to the far flung reaches of the Cosmos – has been mounted on a long boom on the outside to isolate it from magnetic fields on the spacecraft.
Members of Imperial’s physics department have designed magnetometers for previous space missions but had to build the Juice instrument differently due to the pandemic.
Some parts were constructed on kitchen tables. Senior instrument manager Patrick Brown said: "We had tight and often moving deadlines from ESA so were one of the first labs allowed back on campus after the COVID research labs.
"Even so we’ve never had the lab at full capacity during the pandemic so a lot of things have had to be done differently including a lot of the mechanical work being built in team members’ homes and shuttled back and forth to the lab for testing.''
That meant the team could also not always access their 'clean room', where the most sensitive parts of the instrument are usually built.
Instead they had to thoroughly clean the instrument after every move using one cotton bud at a time to remove individual pieces of dust.
The magnetometer will play a key role in Juice's work.
Scientists know the magnetic field around Ganymede – which the probe will orbit for a year – is warped and twisted so any signal from the ocean could easily be obscured.
The magnetometer includes an extra sensor compared to previous versions to make its readings more stable and accurate so it can help detect electrical currents flowing in the ocean.
Testing in a forest in the mountains of Austria in 2021 showed it worked perfectly.
Imperial professor Michele Dougherty said: "It’s incredible what the team have been able to achieve throughout even the worst stages of lockdown.
"The instrument has now been shipped to ESA and I am so proud of the team and all their hard work and it will all be worth it once the spacecraft is on its way to Jupiter.''
The UK Space Agency, which has invested £9m in Juice, said the magnetometer "will lead to an understanding of the formation of the icy moons helping to characterise their oceans and assess their potential for habitability and will provide deep insight into the behaviour of rapidly rotating magnetised bodies".
A team from the University of Leicester led by Dr Nigel Bannister helped make the device radiation-proof to enable it to operate in space.
An Open University team tested and calibrated imaging sensors for the probe's camera system.
While University College London’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory provided detectors and Aberystwyth University contributed to anti-radiation technology.
A European Space Agency source said: "Britain may have left the European Union but it still plays a vital role in our operations.
"British technology will play a key role in this mission.''
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