Typically we’ll post production updates here, but every so often a piece of space news occurs that is so awesome I want to ensure we share it.
In August of 2011, we launched the Juno probe. Juno is similar to Cassini in that it is a specialized mission to study Jupiter. Cassini which was sent to Saturn, mapped out Saturn’s rings, discovered that Saturn’s moon Enceladus likely has a sub surface ocean spewing up through ice geysers that are shaping Saturn’s rings, and also provided us with the first surface images of Saturn’s mysterious moon, Titan. Titan is the only moon in the solar system with a substantial atmosphere. Turns out the place is covered with lakes of liquid methane which we discovered when Cassini sent a secondary probe called Huygens to the surface of Titan.
Juno makes its orbital insertion maneuvers in a matter of hours at 8:18pm PST today (July 4th). During this time, Juno will reach velocities greater than any other human-made space vehicle. Even once safely in orbit, Juno will be subjected to intense radiation. Jupiter’s magnetic field is 20,000 times stronger than Earth’s capturing high energy particles from the Sun; far more than Earth’s does. To protect itself, Juno’s delicate electronics are housed within a shell of 0.8cm thick titanium armour to deflect these particles.
Juno will approach Jupiter closer than any other space craft has to study the planet’s atmosphere as well as maneuver across Jupiter’s poles to examine the planet’s intense aurora. Jupiter was the first of the planets to coalesce from the interstellar dust and gas that became our solar system and contains more mass than all the other planets combined. Jupiter could swallow a thousand Earth’s in its volume. The Juno mission hopes to elucidate how Jupiter was formed which will help us better understand the mechanics that gave rise to the other planets including Earth itself. We also hope to discover what lies beneath the maelstrom that is Jupiter’s clouds to determine what lies at its core; a great unsolved mystery of astronomy.
Juno’s mission will end in February of 2018. It won’t simply be deactivated, rather the probe will be directed to dive into Jupiter’s atmosphere until it explodes in fireball. This blaze of glory will prevent Juno from unintentionally contaminating any of Jupiter’s moons such as Europa with microbes that may have hitchhiked from Earth. We know that life is resilient and can survive in space and under intense radiation for long periods. If microbes were to land on Europa, which we believe may harbour life, they could interfere with future life-finding missions to that moon of Jupiter.
To watch today’s orbital insertion of Juno – 5 years in the making – tune in to NASATV today. Broadcasts begin at 7:30pm PST/10:30pm EST. A schedule of events can be found on this great post from the Planetary Society HERE.
You can also check out the Juno Mission Page HERE