Mission Briefing: Juno

In ancient Roman mythology, Juno was the chief goddess, sister, and wife to Jupiter, king of the gods. Despite her husband’s tumultuous personality, Juno was loyal, and persistent in keeping tabs on Jupiter’s secret affairs.

On August 5, 2011, Juno—the JUpiter Near-polar Orbital—launched from Cape Canaveral and began its long journey to rendezvous with Jupiter. In 2013, Juno briefly returned to Earth’s orbit to propel itself on course by performing a gravitational slingshot maneuver on trajectory toward the gas giant.

Juno is now far enough away from the Sun’s gravity to be completely controlled by Jupiter’s gravitational forces, and on July 4, 2016, the spacecraft will perform a Jupiter orbital insertion (JOI) maneuver to stay in orbit. One wrong move, however, and Juno will fly off into deep space, never to return.

If successful, Juno will orbit Jupiter just over 30 times over the course of 20 months. But the danger doesn’t stop once the spacecraft is in orbit.

Jupiter’s gaseous clouds and fast rotational speed is literally a perfect storm generating high-energy particles that create a severe radiation environment. Juno will be exposed to a radiation dose of 20 million Rads—that is the equivalent of a human receiving 100 million dental X-rays!

Juno is equipped with a first-of-its-kind titanium vault—a high-tech armor suit—protecting all of the delicate sensors, detectors, and imaging equipment inside the spacecraft. This will hopefully significantly reduce the amount of radiation exposure so that Juno can collect as much data as possible.

So, what is Juno’s mission?

Also onboard Juno? Three special custom LEGO minifigures. From L to R: Galileo Galilei, Juno, and Jupiter.

The goal is to take measurements and observations of Jupiter’s atmosphere, with particular focus on the magnetosphere near the north and south poles. For a planet to be birthed into existence, it requires lots of heavy elements—in astronomy, this is any element heavier than hydrogen or helium.  Juno’s data can help scientists understand how these heavy elements become enriched during planetary formation. By comparing the elemental composition of Jupiter to that of our Sun, we can learn more about what separates a planet from a star.

While Juno’s mission will focus on Jupiter itself, the Galilean satellites (Jupiter’s four largest moons) may make their way into a picture or two. One moon is of great interest to scientists—Europa. This moon is completely covered in ice, but scientists believe that under that ice is a vast ocean that is possibly teeming with lifeforms. Future exploration of Europa is inevitable, so Juno needs to steer clear so that it doesn’t crash into the moon and potentially contaminate the natural environment. At the end of Juno’s 20 month orbital journey, it will end in a suicide mission directly into the heart of Jupiter. This ensures that the spacecraft won’t eventually cross paths with Europa (or any of the other moons).

I was lucky enough to be selected as a #NASASocial participant with an invitation to witness the arrival event and orbital insertion live from mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. While astronomy isn’t my field of expertise, I see this as a great opportunity to engage in science communication and outreach. I’ve been having a blast chatting with others online and I’m looking forward to broadening my horizons and learning from the Juno team on July 3rd-4th. You can expect another blog post or two during/after the event!

Yesterday, the Juno team held a live stream press conference with an update on the project (most of which is summarized in this post). They also fielded questions from the press and from the public via Twitter. As a #NASASocial participant, I live tweeted the press update, and even asked a question— which they answered!

I think one of the coolest things about NASA is how they prioritize engagement with the public. If it wasn’t for this passion toward outreach, I wouldn’t be going to JPL in a couple of weeks. This greatly humanizes science and inspires a culture of curiosity, and I’m glad to be a part of it!


Featured Image: Artist’s rendering of Juno’s arrival via NASA/JPL

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