According to Greek mythology, the goddess Juno was the only one able to see through her husband Jupiter’s puffs of smoke and cloudy disguises. By 2011, she was getting ready to perform a similar task, this time thanks to NASA’s efforts. It is now 2016 and in early July the spacecraft has succeeded in joining Jupiter’s first programmed orbit. It will stay there for 20 months and be back by February 2018.
NASA’s New Frontier Program
The Juno mission was launched as a second instalment of NASA’s New Frontier Program. This mission has several objectives. The first goal is to explore the origin of Jupiter from the outside in and therefore understand better the events that shaped our solar system and our home planet. In addition, it will be an opportunity to study Jupiter’s atmosphere, water presence, magnetic and gravity fields as well as the planet’s auroras.
The choice of Jupiter wasn’t exactly random or just a matter of logistics; it’s the biggest planet in our solar system, 300 times the size of Earth, and has retained much of its original mass compared to our home planet.
The cast of Juno
Many actors have played key roles in the success of this endeavour. The main investigator of the Juno mission is the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, while management is handled by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. The Kennedy Space Center of Florida presided over the launch and it is within their facilities that all of the parts of the spacecraft were gathered and assembled.
Juno is considered the fastest spacecraft ever made so far, at a top speed of 165,000 miles per hour. The spacecraft also contains over 18,000 highly advanced solar cells over its three 9-meter solar panels, able to capture the sun’s rays and generate 500 watts of energy.
Cutting edge science
At the present time, the main focus of the mission is the powering up of all the science instruments aboard. The orbit was the first challenge and the team successfully made it through. There are over 30 orbits around Jupiter and many will be followed depending on the mission progress. But first, they must turn on the delicate scientific instruments that are able to look deeper beneath the cloudy atmosphere and storms of Jupiter and kick-start the collection of data.
Scott Bolton, Juno’s principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio stated, “You can expect us to release some information about our findings around September 1.”
Lego astronauts and their final mission
The Juno mission doesn’t have any astronauts on board. It is however carrying several Lego figurines depicting the goddess Juno, the god Jupiter and the astronomer Galileo, the first human to locate Jupiter through his telescope.
The spacecraft will crash into Jupiter’s atmosphere by the end of the mission to prevent contamination of Jupiter’s moons with possible earthly life forms that might have hitched a ride on the spacecraft. It will be a pity to lose the machine but the technology on our planet is constantly improving. Planning is already taking place for future missions.