NASA Memorializes Its Past Greatness While Forging A New Space Frontier
Editor’s Note: Throughout 2016, Americans were consumed with the “soap opera” that was the presidential election. The intensity and drama of the contest crowded out most other news of the day – particularly in the area of science and technology, a major emphasis in higher education for the 21st century, as well as a field replete with Hispanic success stories. In one of the most underreported stories of the year NASA quietly expanded their frontier both on earth and in space with an astounding and successful unmanned mission to Jupiter as part of its Juno program. As scientists cheered and delighted in the stunning images transmitted back to Earth from a planet 365 million miles from its closest point, and 601 million miles away at its farthest, they also ended the year on a somber note. In December, the United States lost a true American hero when former astronaut John Glenn died at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. Here are stories that celebrate NASA’s illustrious past by way of their tribute to Glenn, one of their own, and by opening a museum to NASA’s history, as well as a NASA story that shines a bright light on the ambitious future they have envisioned for themselves
Compiled excerpts of stories about Juno Mission by AP Science Writer Alicia Chang and NASA.gov reports
Just a few days after the death of John Glenn, and while ceremonies honoring him were still in progress, NASA paid the greatest tribute to him and his passion for space exploration by releasing photos transmitted by the Juno spacecraft circling the mysterious planet Jupiter. On December 12, 2016, the spacecraft’s JunoCam sent back pictures of the ‘string of pearls’ on Jupiter – massive counterclockwise rotating storms that appear as white ovals in the gas giant’s southern hemisphere. Since 1986, these white ovals have varied in number from six to nine. There are currently eight white ovals visible.
The Juno spacecraft, named after the Roman goddess who was Jupiter’s wife, arrived in July of 2016 after a nearly five-year voyage. It will orbit the planet for over a year. It was the latest leg in the remarkable voyage the Juno this year, a voyage overshadowed by everyday earthly news.
JunoCam is a color, visible-light camera designed to capture remarkable pictures of Jupiter’s poles and cloud tops. As Juno’s eyes, it provides a wide view, helping to provide context for the spacecraft’s other instruments. Named for the king of the Roman gods, Jupiter is one of five planets visible with the naked eye. It’s so massive that it could hold everything else in the solar system, minus the sun.
“What Juno’s about is looking beneath that surface,” mission chief scientist Scott Bolton said. “We’ve got to go down and look at what’s inside, see how it’s built, how deep these features go, learn about its real secrets.”
Here are a few key numbers about the $1.1 billion mission:
• 1.8 billion miles– That’s the total distance traveled from launch to arrival. Juno’s journey wasn’t a straight shot. Because the rocket that carried Juno wasn’t powerful enough to boost it directly to Jupiter, it looped around the inner solar system and then swung by Earth, using our planet as a gravity slingshot to hurtle toward the outer solar system.
• 3,100 miles – That’s how close Juno will fly to Jupiter’s cloud tops. It’ll pass over the poles 37 times during the mission on a path that avoids the most intense radiation.
• 48 minutes, 19 seconds – That’s the time it takes for radio signals from Jupiter to reach Earth.
• 20 months – That’s how long the mission will last. Eventually, Juno will succumb to the intense radiation and will be commanded to plunge into Jupiter’s atmosphere to avoid any collision with the planet’s moons.
• Three – Three massive solar wings extend from Juno, making it the most distant solar-powered spacecraft. The panels can generate 500 watts of electricity, enough to power the instruments.
Here’s what we still don’t know about Jupiter:
• WATER – Like the sun, Jupiter is a ball of mostly hydrogen and helium. It was probably the first planet to form. Jupiter is 11 times wider than Earth and 300 times heavier. Juno will hunt for water in Jupiter’s atmosphere, which may help explain how Earth got its water.
• GREAT RED SPOT – Jupiter’s most prominent feature is the Great Red Spot, a fierce storm in the atmosphere larger than Earth that has lasted for centuries. In recent years, the spot has been mysteriously shrinking. Once an oval about 25,500 miles wide in the late 1880s, the spot shrank to its smallest observed size in 2014 — the shape of a circle about 10,250 miles across.
• AURORAS – Earth’s dazzling southern and northern lights are dim compared to Jupiter’s auroras, the brightest in the solar system. Earth’s polar lights are triggered by solar storms, which occur when a cloud of gas from the sun slams into the planet’s magnetic field. Jupiter’s powerful auroras are sparked by the planet’s own rotation.
Juno is currently in a 53-day orbit, and its next close flyby of Jupiter will occur on Feb. 2, 2017. •