As long as human curiosity exists, space exploration will likely continue unhindered. As we all know, we are at the cusp of a new era in space exploration, one where space mining will become common place, one where humans will be sent to Mars, one where constantly improving technology allows ever more ambitious missions to become possible. The mission of interest this time is that of JUNO, a solar-powered spacecraft developed by Lockheed Martin which will soon reach the target of it’s NASA assigned mission: Jupiter. The spacecraft has been in flight for almost 5 years, it took off on August 5, 2011 and will arrive on July 4, 2016.
One may ask, why go to Jupiter? Don’t we already know everything we need to about it? After all it’s quite certain that life could not exist there, wouldn’t its moon Europa (most likely to contain life in our solar system) be a far more productive and enlightening research target? The answer is: Probably. We know much about Jupiter and it’s because of what we know that we must find out more. We believe that Jupiter was the first planet in our solar system to be formed, we also know that it is by far the heaviest of the planets in our solar system (heavier than all the other planets in the solar system put together) and most importantly we know that it was heavily involved in the creation of smaller planets such as Mercury, Mars, Venus and Earth. What we don’t fully know is how the planets in our solar system were formed and exactly what ingredients were used to form them. Since over half the leftovers from the creation of our Sun were used in the formation of Jupiter, we can get a very detailed picture of the (elements available and their abundance) in the early solar system by closely analysing the elements that make up Jupiter. This will mainly be done through microwave sounding and the 2 main elements that the planet will be searched for are Nitrogen (in the form of Ammonia) and Oxygen (in the form of water).
Secondly, we are aware that the core of Jupiter has a higher temperature than even the surface of the Sun however we are unsure of what it is made of. Considering this core is also the cause of Jupiter’s incredible magnetosphere which is 20,000 times the size of that of the Earth and the fact that this magnetosphere is what gives rise to the never ending geomagnetic storms and auroral lights around Jupiter, it would be quite useful to find out what the core is made of.
Last but not least, by analysing the climate around Jupiter we will obtain a plethora of data about how charged particles and magnetic fields affect climate. This can lead to major advances in climate science that could potentially be used here on Earth.
The mission wasn’t without its unique set of challenges and setbacks, one of the main challenges was dealing with the massive radiation around Jupiter. The powerful magnetosphere around Jupiter has caused the creation of large amounts of high energy particles which together form Jupiter’s ring shaped radiation belts. In our solar system, this radiation is surpassed only by that of the moon Europa and of course, the Sun. If not dealt with correctly, the high energy particles could randomly knock out electrons from the electric circuits aboard JUNO. To minimise damage to essential scientific instruments, they are being stored inside a 400 pound titanium vault, furthermore the spacecraft will be taking an elliptical orbit around Jupiter to reduce exposure to the radiation belts. Finally, the solar panels will be covered by 2 cm thick glass to slightly reduce radiation damage to the solar cells.
It remains somewhat controversial whether the mission is deserving of the $1.13 billion dollar investment however we’ll have to wait to see the results of this 20 month mission to find out whether it was truly worth it. Interestingly, since one of the future missions involves researching Europa (a water filled world and the most likely in our solar system to contain alien life), at the end of its mission JUNO is set to be destroyed by Jupiter so as to not contaminate Europa. Due to the distance from Earth, it takes 48 minutes to send new orders to JUNO so many of the crucial path changes will take place automatically. There are many potential sources of error and very little room for it, I expect the next 20 months to be filled with excitement and fascinating new discoveries and I’ll be updating all of you on all of them as they happen, look forward to it!