The Juno mission successfully launched to Jupiter this morning at 11:25 a.m. CDT. After a 5-year interplanetary cruise, the probe will orbit and study the planet for about a year after it arrives in July 2016. The blog title refers to one of my all-time favorite children’s science fiction stories “The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet” by Eleanor Cameron. If you have kids, I highly recommend it as a bedtime read.
Instead of a more typical orbit about the planet’s equator, Juno will orbit above the Jupiter’s north and south poles, allowing it to study the planet’s magnetic bubble (magnetosphere) and powerful auroras. It will also fly just 3,100 miles above the cloud tops, closer than any probe. Scientists hope to peer deeply into the planet’s cloudy atmosphere to uncover the root of the Great Red Spot, a high pressure, hurricane-like storm 2 1/2 times the size of the Earth that’s been visible since the 1600s.
Also on the docket are determinations of how much water Jupiter’s atmosphere holds and the nature of its core, which scientists believe contains a highly compressed liquid, metallic form of hydrogen resembling the liquid mercury found in old thermostats. Jupiter’s rapid spin – a day on the planet is only about 10 hours long – stirs up currents within the electrically-conducting fluid that create the planet’s magnetic field.
As part of a joint outreach and educational program developed as part of the partnership
between NASA and the LEGO Group to inspire children to explore science, technology, engineering and mathematics, three figurines are going along for the journey – Jupiter, his wife Juno and Galileo, who discovered Jupiter’s four bright moons. Jupiter holds a lightning bolt, Juno a magnifying glass (signifying the search for truth) and Galileo a telescope and Jupiter globe. Galileo looks remarkably like Santa Claus.
The past few nights have been clear here. Last night I was too tired to tote out the telescope, so I flopped down on a foam pad on the driveway and stared straight up. The Milky Way and Northern Cross were directly overhead and every now and again, a meteor from one of several active showers flared across the stars. First a Perseid, then two Northern Aquarids and then several ‘unattached’ random meteors called sporadics.
Above the cross, there’s a large dark, funnel-shaped gash that looks like empty space. Oh, but it’s not. It’s a thick cloud of nearly opaque dust between us and the background stars. This dark nebula stands in strong contrast against the Milky Way’s haze of stars, so that it’s visible with the naked eye even in moderately light polluted locations. All I could think about was how utterly improbable and wonderful the path from interstellar dust to stars to us. And yet it happened. How can we not be grateful for this moment of life we’ve been granted?