NASA’s Juno spacecraft blasts off to investigate Jupiter

NASA's Juno satellite has as its principal goal to understand the origin and evolution of Jupiter

juno and centaur rocket separation
NASA shot its 4-ton Juno spacecraft into the cosmos today with the ultimate goal of exploring everything it can about the largest planet in our solar system, Jupiter.

 Juno, once described as a flying armored tank, will take five years to reach its destination, slated to arrive at Jupiter in August 2016. Once there the spacecraft will spend a year surveying Jupiter to find out, among other things whether there is a solid core beneath its multi-colored clouds.

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NASA has outlined a number of key challenges for Juno:

  • Juno's principal goal is to understand the origin and evolution of Jupiter. Underneath its dense cloud cover, Jupiter safeguards secrets to the fundamental processes and conditions that governed our solar system during its formation. As our primary example of a giant planet, Jupiter can also provide critical knowledge for understanding the planetary systems being discovered around other stars.
  • Juno will determine the global structure and motions of the planet's atmosphere below its colorful cloud tops for the first time, mapping variations in the atmosphere's composition, temperature, clouds and patterns of movement down to unprecedented depths, NASA said.
  • Deep in Jupiter's atmosphere, under great pressure, hydrogen gas is squeezed into a fluid known as metallic hydrogen. At these great depths, the hydrogen acts like an electrically conducting metal which is believed to be the source of the planet's intense magnetic field. This powerful magnetic environment creates the brightest auroras in our solar system, as charged particles precipitate down into the planet's atmosphere. Juno will directly sample the charged particles and magnetic fields near Jupiter's poles for the first time, while simultaneously observing the auroras in ultraviolet light produced by the extraordinary amounts of energy crashing into the polar regions, NASA said.

Some facts about the spacecraft:

  • When it comes to ensuring that its upcoming Juno spacecraft can survive its mission, NASA surrounded the spacecraft's electronic innards with titanium to ward off radiation. Juno's so-called radiation vault weighs about 200 kilograms (500 pounds), has walls that measure about a square meter (nearly 9 square feet) in area, are about 1 centimeter (a third of an inch) thick and weigh 18 kilograms (40 pounds). About the size of an SUV's trunk - the vault encloses Juno's command and data handling box, power and data distribution unit and about 20 other electronic assemblies, according to NASA.
  • According to NASA Jupiter has sizzling radiation belts surrounding its equatorial region that extend out past one of its moons, Europa, about 650,000 kilometers (400,000 miles).
  • Juno will fly around Jupiter's poles, spending as little time as possible in those radiation belt areas. Engineers also used designs for electronics already approved for the Martian radiation environment, which is harsher than Earth's, though not as harsh as Jupiter's. Parts of the electronics were made from tantalum, or tungsten, another radiation-resistant metal. Some assemblies also have their own mini-vaults for protection, NASA stated.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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