It’s big and it’s gassy. No I’m talking about your father despite their similarities! I’m talking about Jupiter, the largest and most mysterious planet in our solar system, with its giant belts and intense radiation. Back in 2011, NASA launched the Juno spacecraft and sent it whizzing toward Jupiter where it will enter into a polar orbit around Jupiter on July 4th of 2016. The satellite will orbit the planet 37 times in 20 months before the orbit degrades into Jupiter in 2018.
No other spacecraft has flown so close to the gas giant; and so color imagers on the satellite will hopefully capture some of the most stunning close up images of the plant. As the satellite moves away from the poles, it will dive down towards the planet, past the deadly radiation belt to peer through the clouds and dust and gather information on the composition of the planet, atmosphere and magnetosphere. It will also look for a solid planet core, up until now no instrument could see deep enough into the planet to determine if it even has a solid core and its size. Every close pass will expose the spacecraft to very high doses of radiation that puts the sensors at risk. Most of the sensors, the onboard computer and electronics are shielded by a titanium vault that weighs almost 400 pounds. Eventually, after numerous passes, the radiation will be too much, even for the incredible vault and the circuitry will be damaged. Researchers are aware of the great danger of sending a satellite into such dangerous territory, but the rewards should out way the risk and relatively short lifespan of the mission.
Jupiter’s magnetic field is the most intense in the Solar System, and the larger the magnetic field, the larger the magnetosphere. Jupiter’s magnetic field is 20,000 times stronger than Earth’s. The hydrogen gas in Jupiter’s atmosphere is squeezed under pressure into a liquid called metallic hydrogen causing it to act like a metal that is electrically conductive. Many researchers believe this along with Jupiter’s fast rotation is the source of Jupiter’s massive magnetic field. As the internal magnetic field comes up against the external solar winds, the magnetosphere is formed. When Juno orbits over the poles of Jupiter, it will measure the magnetic field and charged particles that are trapped in the magnetosphere. More data on Jupiter’s magnetosphere not only gives researchers insight into Jupiter’s processes but other phenomenon that exhibit similar properties like young stars.
While looking for more information on the Juno mission, I stumbled upon a short informational video on Jupiter featuring none other than Bill Nye! It’s only a minute or two long but I keep watching it because it’s makes me unbearably happy. He sums up the importance of the Juno mission better than I ever could.