Traveling 1.74 billion miles over 5 years, NASA's Juno space probe entered Jupiter's polar orbit on July 5, 2016. Set to explore the Solar System's largest planet until 2018, the Juno probe will provide valuable information previously unavailable to scientists.
Why study Jupiter? Being the largest planet in our Solar System, scientists believe it to be the cornerstone of planet formation. Its huge mass clearly has an influence on other planets, asteroids, and comets, so an in-depth understanding of Jupiter will help us comprehend all planets. Juno's missions will specifically be looking to see when Jupiter was formed, helping untangle competing theories about its history.
Juno isn't the first space probe to look into the giant planet, though. For eight years, until 2003, the Galileo spacecraft carried out research about Jupiter. However, the Juno probe is unique in that it's powered only by solar panels, something more commonly used in satellites orbiting Earth.
On March 27, 2017, the spacecraft completed its fifth flyby of Jupiter. Traveling 2,700 miles over the planet's cloud tops, Juno raced at a speed of 129,000 miles per hour. “This will be our fourth science pass—the fifth close flyby of Jupiter of the mission—and we are excited to see what new discoveries Juno will reveal,” shared Scott Bolton, from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, just prior to the flyby. “Every time we get near Jupiter’s cloud tops, we learn new insights that help us understand this amazing giant planet.”
Already, interesting discoveries have been made. For instance, scientists have realized that Jupiter's magnetic fields are much more complex than previously thought. And the areas that give the planet's cloud tops their unique look appear to extend deep into its interior. Surely as the Juno probe continues its mission, more new and exciting developments will follow.
What is the JunoCam?
The JunoCam is a visible light camera and telescope that beams back images of Jupiter taken from the Juno probe. Specifically, its images are used in public outreach, with the RAW images published for amateur astronomers to download and post-process. In fact, most of the photographs in this article were retouched by people following Juno's course.
The JunoCam has a 58-degree field of view with four filters, allowing for unprecedented images of Jupiter. “Junocam is a wide-angle camera designed to capture the unique polar perspective of Jupiter offered by Juno’s polar orbit. Junocam’s four-color images include the best spatial resolution ever acquired of Jupiter’s cloud tops,” write researchers in a paper for the Southwest Research Institute. “Junocam is on the spacecraft explicitly to reach out to the public and share the excitement of space exploration. The public is an essential part of our virtual team: amateur astronomers will supply ground-based images for use in planning, the public will weigh in on which images to acquire, and the amateur image processing community will help process the data.”
How can I help NASA?
Public outreach is fundamental to the Juno probe's missions. NASA asks that professional and amateur astronomers upload telescopic images of Jupiter in order to help them plan upcoming missions. There is even a list of planned observations to help you figure out what information NASA is looking for.
If you are instead interested in photography, all of JunoCam's RAW images are uploaded and free for the public to use in post-processing. NASA encourages creativity as well, with fictional Millennium Falcon inspired images in their featured gallery. It's this true interactive exchange of information that makes the Juno mission unique. In fact, every time Juno is in orbit and taking photos, the public can vote for their favorite captures.
What's next for the Juno space probe?
Juno is set to continue flybys until it descends into Jupiter's atmosphere in 2018 after 37 orbits. This will cause the space probe to disintegrate, which should control debris. Juno's next orbit is set for May 19, 2017, so stay tuned for more incredible images of the Solar System's largest planet.