Friday, August 5, 2011

Pack Up the Bags, Honey, We're Going to Jupiter!

At Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex 41, a crane is lowered over the nose of the Atlas payload container enclosing the Juno spacecraft. Photo by NASA/Cory Huston
This morning, NASA is scheduled to launch its Juno spacecraft on a journey to explore the largest planet in our solar system, Jupiter. Able to look into the planet's cloudy covering, Juno might be able to learn the secrets of the gas giant. NASA says that, "The answer might confirm theories about how the solar system formed, or it may change everything we thought we knew." No danger of oversel there!

Juno won't arrive at Jupiter until August of 2016, so don't sit at your computer waiting for the Jupiter pictures. (Actually, you should sit at your computer awaiting NASA news, but in the meantime, while Juno is wending its way to Jupiter, check out the Cassini-Huygens mission reports.) By the time Juno finally arrives at Jupiter (presumably wheezing from the effort of running the entire distance), it will survey Jupiter and its moons for a year to draw up a map of its magnetic field. One of the results hoped for is the answer to whether there is a solid core underneath Jupiter's swirling clouds.

"If we could start to understand the role that Jupiter played and how the planet formed and how that eventually governed the creation of the other planets and the Earth and maybe even life itself," the mission's principal investigator, Scott Bolton, told NASA, "then we know a little bit about how to look for other Earth-like planets, maybe orbiting other stars and how common those might be and the roles that those giant planets that we see orbiting the other stars play."

I'm somewhat mentally focused on the gas giants these days, because I've been working on a pictorial spread featuring Cassini's cool Saturn visit, which will appear in the second issue of Galaxis, my free digital science & science fiction magazine. Something else to keep you busy until August 2016.

NASA's Cassini spacecraft took this true-color simulated image of Jupiter in 2000. Jupiter's little moon Europa is casting the shadow on the planet. Photo by NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

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