NASA, Juno and our trip to Jupiter

NASA launched Juno to look at Jupiter in 2011 and since 2016 it has been sending back fantastic images of the Solar System’s biggest planet.

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The last few years seem to have given us a steady stream of interplanetary images that have kept many of us glued to the internet to marvel at the high resolution pictures of alien worlds. Whether it was Messenger with Mercury, Rosetta with 67P, Cassini with Saturn, New Horizons with Pluto or the images now beaming to us from Jupiter, I imagine it’s hard to find anyone who hasn’t been just a little bit amazed by the knowledge of our Solar System that we are acquiring. I can remember the 1980s when the pictures from the gas giants were collected by the Voyager spacecraft. These were reprinted in cards in the breakfast cereal I used to eat and myself and the other kids at school would collect them and spend hours talking about these planets and memorising the facts the were printed on the back of the cards, like how heavy would a person be on Jupiter etc.

Fast forward to the last decade and the images have been more stunning and also have captured the various moons of our Solar System as well. NASA launched Juno on 5 August 2011 to head out to Jupiter as part of the New Frontiers Programme, which includes New Horizons and OSIRIS-REx. The pictures that have come back from Jupiter are simply amazing, with unprecedented detail and data. In this article we have a closer look at Juno, what its role is and what more we are likely to see from this fascinating mission.

Juno was designed to do a number of tasks to help us get a better understanding of Jupiter. The main job is to understand how the planet formed and get a better appreciation of the composition of the internal structure. Understanding more about Jupiter ultimately helps us get a better picture on what happened when the Solar System formed. This, in turn, also helps us understand the processes that are occurring in other solars systems where we have spotted other gas giants. The reason that Jupiter can reveal the secrets of the early Solar System is its size. Jupiter managed to hold onto more of it’s original composition than smaller planets like our Earth. Jupiter is much like the Sun, in that it is mainly composed of helium and hydrogen.

Juno’s mission includes determining how much water is in the atmosphere and also measuring the composition of the atmosphere. Given Jupiter’s atmosphere is it’s most talked about feature then an understanding of how it works is always going to be high on the priority list. So Juno was designed to also measure the temperature and cloud motions. The planet’s internal structure is not all that clear so measuring the magnetic field and gravity field should reveal some more about the internal structure of the planet. Jupiter has a huge magnetic field, considerable larger than the Earth’s, and this creates the huge auroras at the poles so Juno also measures the magnetosphere.

Juno’s instruments (Credit: NASA)

One of the things that NASA has done different with the Juno mission is to invite the general public to help with the processing of images through Junocam. This is where anyone can download the raw images posted by NASA and process them however they want and upload them to a community page. NASA encourages people to simply crop the images around interesting features through to high end processing for building a better understanding of atmospheric structures. The involvement of the general public isn’t just limited to processing images but NASA is also using the general public to assist with mission planning and to assist NASA in deciding what to photograph through a voting process. Another really interesting to the community pages that NASA has put up is the preliminary results of the mission through the think tank pages. So rather than having to wait months for papers to be published we can now get an understanding of the direction of where discoveries are going. This is a fantastic way of getting the public involved in space exploration and build interest.

Another interesting aspect of the Juno mission is the inclusion of a plaque commemorating Galileo and his observations of Jupiter. The plaque translates to:

On the 11th it was in this formation – and the star closest to Jupiter was half the size than the other and very close to the other so that during the previous nights all of the three observed stars looked of the same dimension and among them equally afar; so that it is evident that around Jupiter there are three moving stars invisible till this time to everyone.

Also on board are three lego figures, one of Galileo, one of the Roman god Jupiter and another one of Juno, Jupiter’s wife and sister.

The Galileo plaque (Credit: NASA)

Juno offers an unprecedented opportunity to uncover the secrets of Jupiter and, in doing so, learn a lot more about our Solar System and the processes that may be occurring in the formation of other gas giants in other solar systems.