The 5-year-long dart through space that NASA's Juno Spacecraft started on Friday has grand targets. It aims at unlocking the mysteries behind the formation of planets. In the words of a top NASA scientist, the goal is to "discover the recipe for planets."
“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,” said Scott Bolton, astrophysicist at Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio and Juno’s principal investigator.
The solar-powered unmanned Juno spacecraft was blasted off into space in an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral on Friday. It will reach the orbit of Jupiter, the gas giant 1.7 billion miles away from Earth, and stay there for a year, collecting priceless information about the planet.
The ambitious $1.1 billion mission, which is in continuation of NASA's earlier missions to Jupiter, will culminate in July 2016.
Bolton explains the Juno mission: “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.”
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.
The Juno robotic probe will reach closer to Jupiter than any other previous missions and 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.
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.
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.