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NASA’s Juno probe could soon unlock the mysteries of Jupiter

The incredible mass of Jupiter helped shape our little corner of the universe, and hidden in its swirling clouds could be the answers to a great many questions scientists still have about the early solar system. NASA’s Juno spacecraft was launched five years ago to tease out some of those secrets, and it’s going to arrive at Jupiter in just a few weeks. It will get closer to the planet than any of the eight past robotic missions, allowing us to finally peer beneath the clouds.

Juno was launched in the Summer of 2011, heading out on an eccentric path that took it past the orbit of Mars. That was just to prepare it for a gravity assist from Earth that took place in 2013. This set Juno on the necessary trajectory for its Jupiter encounter in several weeks. NASA is expecting Juno to enter orbit of the massive planet on July 4th, at which time it will take up a polar orbit. This is the preferred way to survey a planet because it’s perpendicular to the angle of rotation.

NASA hopes to see Juno complete 37 orbits of Jupiter over the course of 20 months. Most of those will be 14-day orbits, but the first few will be longer as the probe uses its small hydrazine engine to nudge it into the proper position. The orbital path chosen by NASA will put Juno within 3,000 miles of Jupiter’s cloudtops, far closer than any probe has gotten. This is risky because Jupiter blasts out a huge amount of radiation that can fry a spacecraft that was not specifically designed to cope with it. On Earth we have a background radiation level of about one-third of a rad. Juno will be exposed to more than 20 million rads over the course of its Jupiter study.

radiation jupiter

Despite the ease with which even backyard amateur astronomers can peek at Jupiter’s massive form, we don’t know exactly what it’s like inside. Scientists think that when Jupiter formed, it vacuumed up all the gas nearby. That gas is what makes up most of Jupiter to this day. It’s a sample of the matter that formed our entire solar system, just waiting to be analyzed. One of the big questions Juno could answer with its microwave radiometer is how much water is in Jupiter’s atmosphere. That could tell researchers where Jupiter formed and what the environment was like when it did.

Water isn’t the whole story, though. Juno may also answer once and for all the question of whether or not Jupiter has a solid core. Juno carries a radio wave instrument that is capable of measuring Jupiter’s gravity as the spacecraft is jostled during its approaches. This should allow researchers to map the distribution of mass inside Jupiter and figure out if the core is solid or flowing.

Juno has cameras as well, so expect to see some fantastic images of Jupiter in the next few months as the probe settles in to do some science.

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