Good news for space junkies wondering where their next fix of discovery missions is going to come from after New Horizon’s fly-by of Pluto. The final countdown is on for NASA’s Juno mission to Jupiter, that is due to arrive at Jupiter on 4 July next year.
Juno is the first mission dedicated to studying the interior of the planet to try better to understand its origins and development.
With its suite of science instruments, Juno will investigate the existence of a solid planetary core, map Jupiter’s intense magnetic field, measure the amount of water and ammonia in the deep atmosphere, and observe the planet’s auroras.
Juno will will orbit Jupiter for about one year – that’s 33 orbits – taking observations to determine how much water is in the planet’s atmosphere, measure composition, temperature, cloud motions and other properties of there atmosphere, map Jupiter’s magnetic and gravity fields and study Jupiter’s magnetosphere near the planet’s poles, especially the auroras, to provides new insights about how the planet’s enormous magnetic force field affects its atmosphere.
Like the sun, Jupiter is mostly hydrogen and helium, so scientists think it must have formed early, capturing most of the material left after our star came to be, but how this happened, however, is unclear.
Did a massive planetary core form first and gravitationally capture all that gas, or did an unstable region collapse inside the nebula, triggering the planet’s formation? Differences between these scenarios are profound.
Scientists hope Juno’s data will help determine which planet formation theory is correct, or if new theories are needed.
“We’re already more than 90% of the way to Jupiter, in terms of total distance traveled,” said Scott Bolton, Juno principal investigator at Southwest Research Institute, San Antonio. “With a year to go, we’re looking carefully at our plans to make sure we’re ready to make the most of our time once we arrive.
“We have models that tell us what to expect, but the fact is that Juno is going to be immersed in a strong and variable magnetic field and hazardous radiation, and it will get closer to the planet than any previous orbiting spacecraft,” said Bolton.
“Juno’s experience could be different than what our models predict – that’s part of what makes space exploration so exciting.”
Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.
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