Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system, has long been a source of fascination for scientists and astronomers. With its bright and colorful bands of clouds, massive storms, and a swirling Great Red Spot that is larger than the Earth, Jupiter presents a marvel of planetary science that is unparalleled in the solar system. Yet, there is still much that we don’t know about this giant planet, and NASA’s mission to Jupiter seeks to uncover some of its secrets.
The mission is called Juno, named after the Roman mythological goddess who was Jupiter’s wife. Launched in 2011, Juno spent five years traveling to Jupiter, eventually entering orbit around the planet in July 2016. The goal of the mission is to study Jupiter’s interior, atmosphere, magnetic fields, and radiation environments.
One of the main questions that Juno seeks to answer is how Jupiter was formed. Some scientists believe that Jupiter may have formed at a different location in the solar system and then migrated towards the sun. Others think that Jupiter formed where it currently is and helped to shape the rest of the solar system through its gravitational influence. Juno will study Jupiter’s magnetic field and its gravitational field to learn more about the planet’s interior and its origins.
Juno will also study Jupiter’s atmosphere, which is made up mostly of hydrogen and helium with trace amounts of methane, ammonia, and water vapor. The spacecraft will use its suite of scientific instruments to measure the temperature, pressure, and composition of Jupiter’s atmosphere to help us better understand how it works. One of the most exciting discoveries from Juno so far is that Jupiter’s clouds are much deeper than we thought, extending more than 1,000 kilometers below the visible cloud tops.
Another goal of the Juno mission is to study Jupiter’s radiation belts, which are some of the most intense in the solar system. These belts are made up of high-energy electrons and ions that can pose a threat to spacecraft and can even harm astronauts on long-duration missions to deep space. By studying these radiation belts, scientists hope to better understand the hazards of space travel and how we can protect future missions.
Juno has already provided a wealth of data and made some surprising discoveries about Jupiter. For example, the spacecraft found that Jupiter’s magnetic field is much stronger than previously thought, and it has an irregular shape that is unlike any other planetary magnetic field we have observed. Juno has also discovered strange patterns of cyclones at the planet’s poles, which scientists are still working to understand.
The Juno mission is scheduled to continue until July 2021, but scientists hope to extend it for another three years to allow for more study of Jupiter’s fascinating and mysterious features. By unlocking some of Jupiter’s secrets, we can gain a better understanding of how our solar system formed and how it works, which can inform our thinking about the search for life beyond our own planet.