Out of this world

By | Science & Technology
NASA's Juno spacecraft prepares to make its sixth orbit around Jupiter this July. Credit@NASA

At Cape Canaveral, Florida, on the 5th August 2011, NASA launched their Juno spacecraft with the intention of surveying the far off planet Jupiter. Scientists claim Jupiter is the largest planet in the Earth’s solar system and with the launch of Juno NASA aims to observe the planet’s “turbulent world” and its “complex interior structure, energetic polar aurora, and huge polar cyclones.” NASA claims Juno is the “first solar-powered spacecraft designed to operate at such a great distance from the sun” and is equipped with large solar panels to generate sufficient power. To achieve this, Juno was equipped with three large solar panels which extend outward, increasing the spacecraft span to 20 metres (66 feet). The distance to Jupiter seems to be incomprehensibly vast and NASA claims it took Juno a total of five years to reach Jupiter.

Five years later, in July 2016, Juno seemed set to begin its mission as it first entered Jupiter’s orbit. As of 4th July 2016, Juno has spent an entire year in Jupiter’s orbit and NASA states the spacecraft seems to have travelled an estimated distance of 71 million miles around Jupiter. Scientists believe this data collection may provide insight into the early conditions of the solar system and Jupiter’s origin. In addition, to understanding Jupiter, the knowledge gained may improve humanity’s understanding of other planets and their stars.

This month, as Juno passes over Jupiter’s Great Red Spot in its sixth flyby, scientists claim the spacecraft may pass over the planet’s cloud tops. This places Juno at around 2,100 miles (3,400 kilometres) from Jupiter’s surface and may allow probing beneath the cloud cover. By probing beneath the cloud cover, data may be collected about the planet’s structure, atmosphere and magnetosphere. The previously mentioned “JunoCam”, Juno’s on-board imager, may be used to observe the “composition and circulation of the deep atmosphere”. NASA aims to use Juno’s cloud-penetrating instruments to dive into the storm and explore its depths.

NASA claims Juno is the “first solar-powered spacecraft designed to operate at such a great distance from the sun” and is equipped with large solar panels to generate sufficient power. Credit@NASA

Scientists claim Jupiter’s Great Red Spot may be its most recognisable features; a storm which seems to have been active for generations. Jupiter’s storm seems to have been first observed in 1830 and scientists speculate this storm may have existed for over 350 years. Juno’s proximity to the storm as it passes over may provide humanity with its first close-up view of the mature storm. The 10th July 2017 is when Juno is expected to pass over the planet’s cloud top. This is the point in Jupiter’s orbit where Juno may be closest to the planet’s centre, also known as the Perijove.

Rick Nybakken, project manager for Juno from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California has this to say about Juno’s achievements: “The success of science collection at Jupiter is a testament to the dedication, creativity and technical abilities of the NASA-Juno team.” Rick Nybakken seems impressed with Juno’s performance as each new orbit seems to bring Juno closer to the “heart of Jupiter’s radiation belt”. It seems NASA’s teams are pleased with Juno’s performance since its launch as the spacecraft has had to endure the stormy conditions of Jupiter.”

By observing Jupiter, scientists may be able to test previous theories, such as the possibility of water in Jupiter’s atmosphere. While collecting data, Juno may also observe Jupiter’s temperature, cloud motions and other atmospheric properties. Scientist’s may also aim to gather information about Jupiter’s magnetic and gravity fields, something which may reveal insight into the structure of the planet. By observing Jupiter’s auroras, the northern and southern lights, scientists may also gain information about the planet’s magnetic fields and how this may affect its atmosphere and other aspects of the planet. With such an extensive list of parameters to measure, NASA hopes this mission to Jupiter may provide valuable scientific knowledge about the planet and the solar system as a whole.

How might the Juno spacecraft provide valuable data about Jupiter?

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