Solar-powered unmanned Juno spacecraft was blasted off into space in an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral on Friday, as NASA continued its quest to unravel the secrets of Planet Jupiter, the gas giant 1.7 billion miles away from Earth.
The ambitious $1.1 billion mission, which is in continuation of NASA's earlier missions to Jupiter, will culminate in July 2016.
Juno, which is in the line of missions starting from Pioneer 10 in 1972, has ambitious tasks to fulfil. Scott Bolton, astrophysicist at Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio and Juno’s principal investigator, explains it this way: “How Jupiter formed. How it evolved. What really happened early in the solar system that eventually led to all of us ... We look deeper. We go much closer. We’re going over the poles. So we’re doing a lot of new things that have never been done, and we’re going to get all this brand-new information.”
The following is a low-down of all previous missions to Jupiter, the details about the Juno space probe, how it works and a lot more:
Juno has completed only the first few hours of its journey to Jupiter, which takes an eternity in human terms. An hour after its launch Juno blasted out of Earth's orbit, having travelled at a speed of 24,000 miles per hour.
It will soon hurtle out of moon's orbit and launch itself on the solitary flight towards Jupiter, 1.7 billion miles away. Travelling through space at a speed of 134,000 miles an hour Juno is one of the fastest spacecraft ever.
The spacecraft will orbit Jupiter 32 times, skimming to within 3,100 miles above the planet's cloud tops, for approximately one year.
Three solar panels extend outward from Juno’s hexagonal body, giving the overall spacecraft a span of about 66 feet (20 meters). The solar panels will remain in sunlight continuously from launch through end of mission, except for a few minutes during the Earth flyby.
The newest NASA mission is named after Juno, the sister of Roman God Jupiter. In Roman mythology, Jupiter was the god of thunder.
Probably to salute the mythic origins of the name of the planet, the mission will carry three lego pieces, those of Jupiter, Juno and Galileo. These miniatures will fall through Jupiter's atmosphere and end up having a fiery death along with the probe itself, when the mission is completed years from now.
What Juno Will Do
The Juno robotic probe is expected to reach closer to Jupiter than any other previous missions and stay in Jupiter's polar orbit for as much as one year, studying and analyzing its gravity and magnetic fields.
The probe will delve deep into the environs of Jupiter's formation by analyzing the water content in its atmosphere. It will try to determine how much water is in Jupiter’s atmosphere, which helps determine which planet formation theory is correct (or if new theories are needed). It will also look deep into Jupiter’s atmosphere to measure composition, temperature, cloud motions and other properties.
Juno will map Jupiter’s magnetic and gravity fields, revealing the planet’s deep structure and explore and study Jupiter’s magnetosphere near the planet’s poles, especially the auroras – Jupiter’s northern and southern lights – providing new insights about how the planet’s enormous magnetic force field affects its atmosphere.
The robotic probe will snap images of Jupiter in ultraviolet, infrared and visible light.
Juno uses a spinning solar-powered spacecraft in a highly elliptical polar orbit that avoids most of Jupiter's high radiation regions, NASA says. The designs of the individual instruments are straightforward and the mission does not require the development of any new technologies.
Juno's scientific payload includes a gravity/radio science system, six-wavelength microwave radiometer for atmospheric sounding and composition, a vector magnetometer, plasma and energetic particle detectors, a radio/plasma wave experiment, an ultraviolet imager/spectrometer and an infrared imager/spectrometer. The spacecraft will also carry a color camera to provide the public with the first detailed glimpse of Jupiter's poles.
Juno’s microwave radiometer will study the planet’s water abundance so as to form theories about how the planet coalesced from the cloud of dust that also formed the Sun and the rest of the solar system, crazyengineers.com reports.
Juno, the first solar-powered spacecraft to do long-distance voyage, will also sport a titanium radiation vault to protect its controls. It will have to stay away from Jupiter's shadow as it is powered by solar power. Jupiter gets less than one-twenty-fifth of the sunlight that Earth gets.
How Juno Will Help Future Missions
Astronomers believe that Juno will be able to return valuable information about planet Jupiter five years from now. They think the billion-dollar mission will help unravel the mysteries surrounding the discovery of planets orbiting other stars.
“We can’t look at our earliest history by looking at ourselves. What we’re trying to do is discover the recipe for planets. The approach is to start with getting the ingredient list, and that’s what Jupiter represents to us,” says Bolton.
NASA says Jupiter holds secrets to the fundamental processes and conditions that governed our solar system during its formation. "As our primary example of a giant planet, Jupiter can also provide critical knowledge for understanding the planetary systems being discovered around other stars," says NASA.
In 2020, NASA will launch a mission named Laplace which will orbit Jupiter's moon Europa to find out if it could support life.
Past Missions to Jupiter
The Juno mission is the second spacecraft designed under NASA's New Frontiers Program. The first was the Pluto New Horizons mission, launched in January 2006 and scheduled to reach Pluto's moon Charon in 2015.
It is the ninth probe sent to Jupiter and it will be only the second probe to orbit the giant planet.
In 1972, Pioneer 10 made a flyby of Jupiter, en route to Saturn, while Pioneer 11 made a similar flyby in 1973. The Voyager 1 did the same exercise in 1977. In the same year, Voyager 2 did a flyby of Jupiter while it travelled to Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.
In 1989, Galileo spacecraft orbited Jupiter and dropped a probe capsule on the planet.
Spacecrafts Ulysses, Cassini and New Horizons made flybys of the planet in 1990, 1997 and 2006 respectively.