MIAMI, United States – Juno, an unmanned National Aeronautics and Space Administration spacecraft, is barreling towards Jupiter on a $1.1-billion mission to circle the biggest planet in the solar system and shed new light on the origin of our planetary neighborhood.
On July 4 and 5, the solar-powered vehicle – about the size of a professional basketball court – should plunge into Jupiter’s poisonous atmosphere to begin orbiting for a period of almost two years.
Jupiter is the fifth planet from the Sun. Its atmosphere is made up of hydrogen and helium and packed with so much radiation that it would be more than 1,000 times the lethal level for a human.
The gas giant is also enshrouded in the strongest magnetic field in the solar system.
“Jupiter is a planet on steroids,” said Juno principal investigator Scott Bolton, of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas. “Everything about it is extreme.”
Jupiter is perhaps best known for its Great Red Spot, which is actually a massive storm, bigger than the Earth, that has been roiling for hundreds of years.
The planet is marked by cold, windy clouds of ammonia and water that appear as reddish, brown, and beige stripes and swirls.
Getting close, and surviving, is no easy feat. Even though the spacecraft is entirely robotic and controllers on Earth can do nothing at this stage, Bolton admitted this week to being nervous about its entry into orbit of the spacecraft, five years after its launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Steve Levin, Juno project scientist from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said water figures are the most important ones that Juno is going to bring back.
“If Jupiter formed far from the Sun, where it is cold, out of blocks of ice… you would get a different amount of water inside Jupiter than if it formed closer to the Sun than it is now.”
The spacecraft will use a microwave radiometer instrument to measure water, essentially a radio receiver that can help Earth-bound scientists “see” inside Jupiter’s atmosphere.
“The amount of water inside Jupiter is crucial to understanding how the solar system formed because it is crucial to understanding how Jupiter formed,” said Levin. (AFP)