NASA Juno spacecraft will target Jupiter

NASA said Juno assembly, testing and launch operations underway

Juno assembly
In August NASA is planning to launch a satellite called Juno that will tell scientists a whole lot more about the origin and history of our solar systems' largest planet, Jupiter. 

NASA this week said assembly, testing and launch operations for Juno have begun at Lockheed Martin Space Systems and engineers will take the next few months fitting instruments and navigation equipment onto the spacecraft.  

According to a recent report there are a few systems still under development that could delay the launch. For example, the Government Accountability Office said a earthquake in central Italy in April 2009 caused damage to a factory in which a Juno component was being developed. 

21 critical future NASA missions

Testing the solar-powered spacecraft's ability to communicate and handle the icy and harsh conditions of space are what NASA is looking to test.  If Juno launches in August, it should arrive near Jupiter by July 2016 and begin its mission of orbiting the planet 32 times. 

Juno's success will depend on the nine instruments -- including highly sensitive radiometers, magnetometers, and gravity science systems -- it will fly into space that look to indentify the existence of a solid planet core, map Jupiter's intense magnetic field, measure the amount of water and ammonia in the planets' deep atmosphere, and observe the planet's auroras.  

NASA notes a couple key challenges for Juno: 

  • 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. 

While Juno is expected to answer a number of questions about the big planet, University of California, Berkeley scientists are looking to glean information about the planet now.  They recently said conditions on the interior of Jupiter are so strange that, helium condenses into droplets and falls like rain. 

 On Jupiter the scientists explain the only way neon could be removed from the upper atmosphere is to have it fall out with helium, since neon and helium mix easily, like alcohol and water. The scientists were looking for an explanation for why the massive orb's atmosphere contained little neon, a common gas found on many planets. 

Calculations performed by UC Berkeley post-doctoral fellow Hugh Wilson and Burkhard Militzer, UC Berkeley assistant professor of earth and planetary science and of astronomy suggest that at about 10,000 to 13,000 kilometers into the planet, where the temperature about 5,000 degrees Celsius and the pressure is 1 to 2 million times the atmospheric pressure on Earth, hydrogen turns into a conductive metal. Helium, not yet a metal, does not mix with metallic hydrogen, so it forms drops, like drops of oil in water, the scientists say.

 Modeling planet interiors has become a hot research area since the discovery of hundreds of exoplanets living in extreme environments around other stars, researchers stated. NASA's star-gazing space telescope Kepler recently spotted five such exoplanets orbiting stars beyond our own solar system. 

The five planets are called "hot Jupiters" because of their deep mass and extreme temperatures, NASA said. They range in size from about the same size as Neptune to larger than Jupiter and have orbits ranging from 3.3 to 4.9 days, NASA stated. The orbs likely have no known living organisms because NASA estimates their temperatures to range from 2,200 to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, hotter than molten lava and all five orbit stars hotter and larger than Earth's sun. 

NASA notes that the Juno mission is the second spacecraft designed under NASA's New Frontiers Program. The first was the Pluto New Horizons mission.  Launched into space in January 2006 and has been hurtling toward Pluto at about 50,000 mph. Even at that rate the 1,054lb satellite will get it close to the dwarf planet sometime around July 2015. 

Once it is there - or actually within 6,000 miles of the planet and its largest moon, Charon, New Horizons will take close-up pictures in visible and near-infrared wavelengths. The best pictures of Pluto will depict surface features as small as 200 feet across, NASA said. 

NASA said the spacecraft will look for ultraviolet emissions from Pluto's atmosphere and make the best global maps of Pluto and Charon in green, blue, red and a special wavelength that is sensitive to methane frost on the surface. The satellite will also take spectral maps in the near infrared, offering up details about Pluto's and Charon's surface compositions and locations and temperatures of these materials. 

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8   

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