It’s strange how one word can invoke such a profound feeling of curiosity and intrigue in a person. Since the most ancient of days, humans have looked up at the night sky and wondered what mysteries lie beyond this blue ball we call home. Are there ice worlds made of ice and dust? Bodies covered in volcanoes and magma?
It should be no surprise then, considering our fascination with space, that we would want to explore it. We’ve plotted the movement of stars across the night sky, we’ve sent satellites into orbit around our planet, and, on July 20th 1969, we even managed to put a man on the moon. It wasn’t until the 1970s, however, that we sent probes to examine the gigantic bodies beyond our orbit. Pioneer 10 and 11, as well as the Voyager spacecraft, flew past the planets of the outer solar system, taking many photos that we still use today. Last year, New Horizons gave us a captivating glance at Pluto for the first time, showing us that it really does have a heart, and now, the latest chapter in space exploration is beginning to unfold.
NASA’s Juno spacecraft is set to explore the king of the solar system, Jupiter. For those who don’t know their Roman mythology, Jupiter was the King of the gods, and was prone to having many lovers – whom the moons of Jupiter are named after – whilst being married to his wife, Juno. Furthermore, it is believed that Juno was able to peer through the clouds that Jupiter used to conceal himself, allowing her to check on whatever mischief he was up to, and making it a very fitting name for our spacecraft.
While space exploration is fantastic and exciting, it’s the mission of the satellite that really thrills scientists. Most current theories about how the solar system formed involve a giant cloud of gas and dust forming around the early sun. What isn’t known, however, is how the outer planets were created after this, and in particular, how much oxygen they hold and if they even have metallic cores at their centres.
Jupiter is a special of our solar system because it has maintained the same composition since it’s formation. For this reason, Juno will analyse the atmospheric concentration of water and ammonia in great detail. This should provide us with never before seen evidence into the mysteries of solar system formation. Essentially, Jupiter is a giant history book and Juno is the historian, reading its pages for the first time.
To help with this, Juno will also map Jupiter’s magnetic and gravitational fields, revealing the secrets of its internal structure and core. It will also sample, for the very first time, the charged particles formed from Jupiter’s intense radiation and magnetic fields, as well as viewing the bright, energetic auroras at Jupiter’s poles. The potential discoveries that Juno could make is incredibly exciting.
Juno is a marvel of human engineering. Equipped with instruments designed to withstand the radiation equivalent to 100 million dental x-rays, it is designed to uncover the mysteries of origin, and by extension, the solar system. It is the first spacecraft to be sent into the outer solar system without a nuclear generator, instead using the largest set of solar panels in any exploratory spacecraft to date, and making the furthest trip using only solar power – a staggering 588 million kilometres.
On July 4th, Juno entered into Jupiter’s orbit and is expected to hover within 5000km of the planet’s atmosphere. To put this into perspective, if Jupiter were the size of a basketball, the Juno would be less than a centimetre from his surface! Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, and in a few years, the probe will make a dive towards the planet and fall into its depths, never to be seen again.
But while Juno’s mission will only last a few years, our curiosity with space will not be sated. Whether it be sending probes to distant moons in the hope of finding extraterrestrial life, or the highly anticipated manned mission to Mars, we still have many exciting new missions to explore the great beyond just over the horizon. So get out your telescope, blanket and hot chocolate, and spend some time just staring up at the night sky – it’s out of this world!