Juno is going where no spacecraft has before. NASA's solar-powered ship was launched five years ago, sent on a mission to study Jupiter, the largest gas globe in our solar system. Now, after almost a couple thousand days on course, it is on track to arrive at Jupiter on the evening of July 4th to scan, measure, study and photograph the planet. On a recent trip to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) headquarters in Pasadena, I caught up with lead project scientist Steve Levin for a rundown of the mission and the specific event that could potentially uncover the mysteries of our entire solar system.
In the event, formally known as Jupiter Orbit Insertion (JOI), the 8,000-pound spacecraft will slow on approach in order to be pulled into the planet's orbit. Once inside, it will circle Jupiter's poles for insight into the composition of the planet and its magnetic fields. The tricky maneuver will put Juno about 3,100 miles above the clouds, making the ship the one that gets the rarest up-close-and-personal look at the massive planet.
The spaceship, built by Lockheed Martin, has a fan-like appearance with three solar panel extensions protruding from its main body. Inside, it's loaded with gadgetry for the scientific mission: a gravity science instrument will map the planet's gravity and magnetic fields; a microwave radiometer will determine how much water is on the planet; and a JunoCam will take photographs.
The information from the instruments will help scientists learn how the massive planet was formed. Does it have the same composition as the sun? Or is it made up of large chunks of ice? Firing up the sensors at a planned precise moment will reveal the answers next month.