Last July, NASA’s New Horizons space craft made headlines and history as it completed it’s flyby of Pluto and gave us our first real look at the [former] planet. While there are further mission plans for New Horizons, I think that a different spacecraft will be making the next round of headlines. July 4th, Juno (JUpiter Near-polar Oribiter) will arrive at it’s destination and begin it’s study of the largest [known] planet in our solar system.
Now, this isn’t the first time we’ve sent a spacecraft to Jupiter. Pioneers 11 and 12, Voyagers 1 and 2 and Cassini all made flybys of the planet and relayed some important information back to us. From 1995-2003 Galileo studied Jupiter and it’s satellites before being crashed into the planet to avoid contaminating the Jovian moons. It discovered a magnetic field on Ganymede, supported the idea of Europa having a subterranean ocean and helped us figure out the composition of Jupiter’s atmosphere to list just a couple things.
Despite all the information we gathered from these previous probes, Juno has the potential to teach us more than all of these combined. The orbiter is equipped with nine different instruments including a radio and plasma waves sensor, a magnetometer and UV imaging spectrograph all powered by the largest solar array we have ever launched into space. Now, most people may not know what all these things are or what they do, so I’d like to take you through just a couple interesting things that Juno will do for us.
When most people think of Jupiter, the first thing that comes to mind is it’s most prominent feature. The Great Red Spot. A huge swirling storm the width of three Earths which has been raging for hundreds of years at least. As fascinating as this hurricane is, we know very little about it. Juno will provide us with much more information like why it doesn’t move and how deep into Jupiter’s atmosphere it goes. This could also help us learn about other similar occurrences such Neptune’s Great Dark Spot.
The aspect of this mission I’m most excited about is the potential to figure out if Jupiter has a core, and if so what it’s composition is like. Juno has all the tools it needs look deep into Jupiter and it’s past. Since we first discovered that the outer planets are just huge balls of gas, we’ve wondered what’s inside. Are they gas all the way down? Is there a solid core, a surface something could theoretically land on? There’s even an interesting theory that it’s made of super dense hydrogen acting like a metal! The potential of finally having an answer to this question is incredibly exciting.
The gas giants in our solar system hold the unique potential to teach us a lot about the formation of our solar system. With so many unanswered questions about how our planet formed and what happened when the Sun was young Juno’s mission could be one of the most important and informative of it’s kind. It could open up an unknown history of our own planet and thus be a step towards answering what the conditions were like when life started. So instead of watching the news for what celebrity is coming out of the closet, or giving Donald Trump more of the attention he uses as sustenance, this July look for the headlines about Juno and the incredible discoveries it will bring us.
If you want to learn more about the Juno mission, the Planetary Society put out some great videos featuring Bill Nye. They’re each only a couple minutes long, but explain everything perfectly!