Unlocking Our Origin Story On Jupiter
On a clear night you can see our solar system’s largest planet, Jupiter, with the naked eye. But for all its size and relative proximity, much still remains unknown to scientists about the gaseous giant.
With the recent arrival of NASA probe Juno into Jupiter’s orbit that is about to change.
While America was celebrating its Independence Day earlier this month, NASA was celebrating its own milestone – the successful arrival of the Juno mission to Jupiter after an incredible five year, 1.7 billion mile journey through space. Eight previous NASA missions have photographed the mysterious planet, but Juno is the first probe to venture below the planet’s swirling cloud cover.
It should come as no surprise that Pasadena’s own Jet Propulsion Laboratory serves as mission control, directing the probe’s journey and announcing to the world its groundbreaking entry into Jupiter’s orbit.
Juno’s mission is a hazardous one, navigating the turbulent winds and harsh radiation within Jupiter’s atmosphere. What from afar looks like beautiful striations on the planet are in fact violent storms covering its surface, including the famous giant red spot – a huge spinning storm that has been puzzled over by scientists for hundreds of years. The immense mass of the planet attracts large amounts of debris that Juno must carefully dodge as it prepares to orbit the planet 37 times.
The Juno mission hopes to answer many questions about Jupiter’s origin, including how the planet was created and what lies at its very core.
Previous missions that have flown by the planet have led scientists to believe that there is more to the planet than its gaseous exterior, composed of mainly hydrogen and helium. If confirmed by the instruments aboard Juno, a solid core in Jupiter could answer many questions about the formation of the planet and its function in our own solar system. The probe will also study weather patterns on the planet, which may also offer insight into our own planet’s weather systems. These are just a few of the key questions scientists hope to shed light on in the coming months.
Because of its large mass, the planet has an intense gravitational pull and the life of Juno will be limited. After five years of travel through space to reach Jupiter, Juno is expected to circle the planet for just under two years before self-destructing so as not to risk contamination through a crash on the surface.
It is missions like Juno that show us the importance of strong and continued funding for NASA and its planetary science programs. A responsible and predictable budget for NASA allows us to plan new missions and learn more about our neighboring planets and, in turn, understand more about the origins of our solar system and our own home. This year, Congress funded planetary science at its highest level in five years. For the upcoming fiscal year, the House plans to fund planetary science at an even higher level of $1.85 billion – a huge win that we could not have imagined years ago.
Juno still faces many challenges, but if all continues according to plan this mission could provide insight into our own planet and its early history. The technologies that make such a mission possible also have countless applications at home and help power America’s inventive excellence. It is critical that we keep the spirit of exploration alive and pass it on to future generations. Watching the video of NASA scientists cheering as mission control declared, “Welcome to Jupiter” should be all the incentive we need.