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

Food, fear, and fame

If you are on Facebook, chances are you’ve seen someone share a post from “Food Babe,” the moniker of self-proclaimed health guru/investigative journalist/food activist Vani Hari. Her viral campaigns against the cancer-causing chemical in pumpkin spice lattes and the yoga mat chemical in Subway bread have helped launch her into fame with her thousands of followers, who she calls her “Food Babe army.”

After learning about Vani Hari, Yvette d’Entremont, a chemist and science communicator, started her own blog, under the pseudonym, Science Babe, with the aim to debunk pseudoscience that tends to circulate around the interwebs. Yesterday, the “Science Babe” published a piece on Gawker titled, “The ‘Food Babe’ is Full of $h*t” and it is brilliantly on point. If you haven’t read it yet, stop reading this and click that link. I’ll wait…

Image via NatalieMaynor / Flickr

The facts are these:

Food Babe has built a brand around her own self-image and exploits the non-science minded through fear mongering rather than facts. Her mantra of “If a third grader can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it” does nothing but create paranoia, instead of education about food. I doubt many third graders can say deoxyribonucleic acid aka DNA aka the stuff of life. Though what is terrifying about this, is that a recent survey conducted by Oklahoma State University showed that ~80% of respondents were in support of the government to mandate labels on foods containing DNA — yep, the question wasn’t about GMOs (genetically modified organisms), but labeling DNA, the very chemical substance of which everything we eat is made.

By warning her readers of “chemicals” and “toxins” and “science,” Food Babe is actually causing more confusion over the issues surrounding the complexity of food science.* Sadly, anyone who tries to correct her misinformation gets labeled a “shill” paid off by the big bad food industry…and the Food Army drones on in agreement. Nevermind the fact that these people are actual scientists with actual science degrees and actual critical thinking skills.

So why should Food Babe back down? She’s found a way to promote her voice (and make money off of it) and ride the wave of internet fame. She’s confident that her past experiences work, so the same can work for you! She doesn’t claim to be a scientist, but an investigator who digs for the truth…

This is extremely dangerous for such a fast-paced world we live in. People don’t want to take the time to think critically and educate themselves about science — they’d rather be wowed with anecdotes from a click bait-y headline that’s easy to share in a split-second with one click. People who have legitimate health concerns are another reason why she is so dangerous…because she inspires her followers self-diagnose or “think” they have an allergy, or worse, feel like they need to lie about it to “fit in” with the crunchy crowd. I agree that changes need to be made to make food choices safe for people who really have health issues and need to be aware of what they are consuming.

It’s unrealistic to hold the average American accountable for understanding the complexity of scientific issues. But we can point them to scientists and communicators who are dedicated to explaining the science in a clear manner, without watering it down. Oversimplifying, which is exactly what Vani Hari does, causes nothing but confusion and fear of the very science and technology that has led us to discover penicillin, eradicate smallpox, send men to the moon, and inspire the next generation of curious young thinkers to live out their dreams.

Preventing the Sixth Extinction

The tecopa pupfish. The Javan tiger. The golden toad. The Pyrenean ibex. The West African black rhino. Just a handful of species that have gone extinct in the past 50 years. Many people consider “extinction” as a phenomenon that occurred millions of years ago when the dinosaurs died. As succinctly explained by Joe Hanson’s video for It’s OK To Be Smart, and detailed in Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, we are currently living the next major mass extinction.

Let’s compare a few numbers:

There are an estimated 7.2 billion humans around the globe. Meanwhile, only about 300,000 chimpanzees remain in Africa. It’s been estimated that there are 25,000 polar bears worldwide, and less than 2,000 wild panda bears in China. As of this past December, only 5 northern white rhinos remain on Earth — all in captivity, unable to breed. Their survival rests in the science of artificial insemination technologies.

In addition to these more prominent, well-loved mammals, many other species of life are dying as well.  Nearly one-third of all known frog species are endangered or extinct. The Rafflesia species of southeast Asia produce the largest flowers on Earth, and are recognizable by their “rotting flesh” aroma — all threatened by deforestation and the inability to cultivate it. There are species we are just discovering, only to discover that they are already endangered, such as the Plectostoma snail species.

Poaching, deforestation, pollution, and climate change are the major factors contributing to the rapid decline in flora and fauna. All factors which are driven by human impact. But we are not an impending asteroid on a collision course set for Earth. We are a species gifted with intellect and compassion, who can choose to make a change for the better.

Go out and enjoy your nearby parks, zoos, or natural history museums, consider donating to research institutions, recycle your trash, ride your bike instead of driving your car — don’t believe that the problem is too big. It isn’t just up to climate scientists and policy makers, conservationist zoos and aquariums, or genetic breeding programs. We can all choose to make a difference.


 Featured image in public domain via the Nordisk familjebok/Wikimedia Commons

In Which I Watch Children’s TV Shows…For SCIENCE!

This weekend, I discovered that The Magic School Bus was available to stream on Netflix. I spent my Saturday morning snuggling in with my pajamas, two pups, a cup of tea, and a blanket of nostalgia as I watched a couple of episodes. I thought about “The Frizz” and Bill Nye the Science Guy, and how they were just as influential as my “real life” school teachers in shaping my love of science as a kid. I wondered what science programming is available for children nowadays. Is there anything that has the potential to become an educational classic like all the shows from my childhood?

One day about a year ago, we were channel surfing and stumbled upon a kids show with an adorable looking CG-animated Tyrannosaurus rex explaining to his Pteranodon friends that “a hypothesis is an idea you can test!” My interest was piqued.

Turns out that show was Dinosaur Train, a PBS series that explores the prehistoric creatures of the Mesozoic Era by way of time traveling train. Nothing stimulates a young child’s scientific imagination quite like dinosaurs. And I have no shame in divulging the fact that as childless adults, we found the show on Netflix and binge watched a few episodes.

A friend on Twitter also pointed me to Sid the Science Kid (the CGI predecessor to Dinosaur Train, both produced by The Jim Henson Company), which introduces basic scientific concepts and the scientific method of asking questions and making observations. She mentioned how the show uses age appropriate language, but doesn’t make it hard for an adult to listen to…in other words, age appropriateness without “dumbing down.” This is so important in science communication!

Google searches also revealed a show called SciGirls, which is aimed at 8-12 year old girls by featuring other preteen girls doing their own science and engineering projects. In a culture that still reinforces sexist/gender-specific marketing for boys and girls (see the “I’m too pretty for homework so my brother does it for me” T-shirt fiasco), I think this show is a great attempt at empowering young girls to get interested in STEM fields.

And for older kids, nothing makes science look cool like the explosive production on Mythbusters or the wonder-filled storytelling in Cosmos.

Perhaps there is hope for children’s science programming after all. None of these jump out at me as potential “classics,” but who knows what our perception of media will look like in 20 years. And of course, there is a whole new programming medium for the digital age, with a plethora of great science-related YouTube channels available 24/7. I’ll share some of my favorites in a future blog post.

Deep Water Rave: Biofluorescence in Fish

From the magical glow of fireflies at night, to the mesmerizing orb of the deep sea angler fish designed to lure prey, most people are familiar with nature’s glowing creatures. This is due to a process called bioluminescence. These animals create their own light by producing a chemical called luciferin, which chemically reacts with oxygen to release energy in the form of light.

A similar process called biofluorescence occurs when one wavelength of light is absorbed, and then converted into a lower energy and higher wavelength, resulting in a different color of light. Recently, it was found that  more than 180 species of biofluorescent fish swimming in the waters. Fishes from the Cayman Islands, the Bahamas, and the Solomon Islands were imaged and scanned for fluorescence using special LED light sources and filters, and the results presented a wide variety of patterns and colors.

Diversity of fluorescent patterns and colors in marine fishes. A, swell shark (Cephaloscyllium ventriosum); B, ray (Urobatis jamaicensis); C, sole (Soleichthys heterorhinos); D, flathead (Cociella hutchinsi); E, lizardfish (Synodus dermatogenys); F, frogfish (Antennarius maculatus); G, false stonefish (Scorpaenopsis diabolus); H, false moray eel (Kaupichthys brachychirus); I, false moray eel (Kaupichthys nuchalis); J, pipefish (Corythoichthys haematopterus); K, sand stargazer (Gillellus uranidea); L, goby (Eviota sp.); M, goby (Eviota atriventris); N, surgeonfish (Acanthurus coeruleus, larval); O, threadfin bream (Scolopsis bilineata). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0083259.g001

In deep sea waters, red, yellow, orange, and green light gets filtered out, leaving only the wavelength of light that we perceive as blue light. Using biofluorescence, these fish species absorb the blue light, and convert it back to a lower energy of light, thus re-emmiting the red, yellow, orange, and green colors seen above.

Scientists are currently studying this broad diversity of biofluorescence to determine it’s evolutionary advantages and adaptations to marine life. One hypothesis is that the variations of color and patterns may be used to attract a mate, similar to the way a male peacock will flash his patterned feathers at a female. Another possibility is that different colors and patterns are suited for camouflage within biofluorescent coral reefs. There have also been studies about using biofluorescence as a type of “hidden communication” between the species; they flash their light to one another to signal that a predator is nearby. This silent communication is possible because the light emitted is at a wavelength that the predator itself can’t see.

While most of us will never get to see these beautiful creatures for ourselves, we can close our eyes and envision ourselves swimming in the dark surrounded by glowing flashes of reds, yellows, and greens – nature’s version of a dance rave in your imagination!