‹‹ Looking Up

This Independence Day We Do The Invading

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This artist's rendering shows NASA's Juno spacecraft making one of its close passes over Jupiter.
Credit NASA/JPL-Caltech
This artist's rendering shows NASA's Juno spacecraft making one of its close passes over Jupiter.

This Independence Day Hal briefs us on the Juno Mission to Jupiter.  

It was just about one year ago that the New Horizons spacecraft flew past Pluto. That wonderful gizmo is still returning great scientific information and stunning pictures from 3 billion miles away.

This Fourth of July, NASA will do it again, as the Juno spacecraft will arrive at Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system. 

Unlike New   Horizons, which flew past Pluto in just a few hours, the Juno spacecraft will enter orbit, and will return wonderful pictures and information for at least a full year, while orbiting Jupiter at least 37 times, sometimes no higher than 3000 miles above the planet’s clouds.

It isn’t easy to fly a spacecraft to another planet and enter orbit. NASA could not just fly the spacecraft in a straight line for Jupiter. Instead, lots of very complicated math went into calculating exactly where to aim the spacecraft when it was launched in 2011. Over the past five years, Juno has traveled a bit under 2 billion miles through the solar system in order to catch up and line up perfectly with Jupiter on the Fourth of July.

This is the 10th NASA spacecraft to either fly by, or orbit, Jupiter. And Juno has learned the lessons taught by its previous brother and sister spacecraft. An earlier mission dropped a probe into Jupiter’s atmosphere, where it detected far less water than was expected. Scientists wondered whether they just happened to hit a dry spot, or if Jupiter doesn’t have as much water after all.

Now, because Jupiter produces microwaves, the Juno spacecraft is carrying a microwave receiver. And just as your microwave oven at home can heat up a cup of water, Jupiter is most certainly heating up whatever amount of water it has. The receiver can measure how much water is being cooked by microwaves, and that should help tell us how much water there really is.

If you’d like to take a closer look at Jupiter, or any of the other wonderful and amazing things in the sky, please visit CSASTRO.org for a link to information on our monthly meetings and our free public star parties! 

This is Hal Bidlack for the Colorado Springs Astronomical Society, telling you to keep looking up, Southern Colorado!