Exploring Jupiter

Jupiter, taken by the Cassini satellite

With all the excitement the last few weeks of watching the new Mars Curiosity rover get packed up and on the first leg (JPL in California to Florida) of its long journey to Mars, it’s easy for me to forget that there is a lot of other space exploration stuff going on this summer. Juno, which I wrote a bit about last month, is another JPL-based NASA mission, heading out in August for the planet Jupiter. I realized in reading about Juno that I know very little about Jupiter so it’s time to remedy that deficit of knowledge. I knew Jupiter was the biggest planet in our solar system, and that it had some moons, but that’s really about it. So time to learn more about Jupiter.

First, why study Jupiter at all?  Because learning more about this huge planet can help us understand how our Sun and solar system formed over 4.5 billion years ago. From active volcanoes to icy moons, Jupiter and its moons are almost a solar system in themselves. Studying how these bodies interact, and the atmosphere and magnetic fields of Jupiter itself, will hopefully give us more information to understand our planet and our little corner of the universe.

Great Red Spot as seen by Voyager

Juno won’t be the first satellite to study Jupiter in detail. Voyager 1 and 2, Ulysses, Galileo and Cassini have all provided data information about this gas giant of a planet. In 1979, the separate visits of the Voyagers sent back detailed photos of the weather activity on Jupiter, discovering the Great Red Spot, as well as our first close-up views of its moons, including the first active volcano found outside of Earth on the moon Io.

In 1992, the Ulysses spacecraft, designed to explore our Sun, used Jupiter’s gravity to position itself to explore the Sun’s poles. During its fly-by, Ulysses identified changes in Jupiter’s gravity and recorded fewer active volcanos on Io than observed by the Voyagers 13 years earlier.

Galileo, the first spacecraft devoted to long-term exploration of Jupiter, was launched from the space shuttle Atlantis in October 1989 and reached Jupiter in December 1995, becoming the first satellite to orbit a planet in the outer solar system. Credited with a long list of discoveries, one of the most startling finds was evidence of subsurface salt water on three moons: Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. Galileo’s mission ended in 2003 when it crashed into Jupiter’s atmosphere.

Cassini (artist's rendition, courtesy NASA)

Cassini did a fly-by in 2001 on its way to Saturn, sending back over 1,200 detailed photographs taken over 70 days that — strung together by JPL scientists into a time-lapse movie –showed how storms on Jupiter behave. The Cassini movie showed persistent storms moving across the planet’s surface by bands of latitude, with the storms lasting the entire 70 days covered by the photographs. In all, Cassini took over 26,000 photographs as it flew by Jupiter, and those photographs are being used to develop insights into the faint rings and the moons of Jupiter. Cassini’s single fly-by sent more than enough information to keep scientists busy for years.

Imagine, then, what Juno will do. Thirty-seven years after the Voyager spacecraft first sent back detailed images, Juno will observe Jupiter with cameras and instruments designed to capture information about the planet’s gravity, magnetic fields, and atmosphere. It is in studying these elements that scientists will work on determining the properties of Jupiter and how it evolved over billions of years.

I’ve saved the best for last. Go here to see a breathtaking video opening, then learn more about the Juno mission from a dedicated website:  The history of our planet lives on this planet. 

JPL: Aquarius Mission satellite to study ocean salinity launches June 9.

Aquarius in orbit (Artist's concept, via NASA)

Aquarius/SAC-D is a three-year mission that will observe and report on salinity at the ocean’s surface. This will help us to understand more about the water cycle and ocean circulation on our blue planet. The data will also improve the accuracy of computerized climate models.

The launch window for Aquarius opens June 9th, so the satellite is in the final stages of launch preparation. I like that the Delta II rocket that will carry Aquarius into orbit will launch from Vandenburg Air Force Base, which is just down the coast from me I was lucky enough to visit it last spring and see the launch complexes from the road that meanders through the south end of the AFB.

Final instrument check (courtesy NASA)

How effective will Aquarius be? In the first months of the mission, scientists will receive more data than they have in 125 years of shipboard and water-based sensors. 125 years of data surpassed by a few months observation from orbit. Amazing! Aquarius will be in orbit 408 miles above the earth’s surface (the International Space Station is roughly 220 miles up), so it’s going to be way up there. And still, it will be able to provide maps of salinity changes down to a resolution of 93 miles. The three-year mission will enable Aquarius to collect data on salinity changes from month to month, season to season, and year to year. All of this will be data more rich and more complete than anything scientists have had to work with before. 

Aquarius/Satélite de Aplicaciones Científicas (SAC)-D is a joint effort of NASA and the Argentinian space agency, CONAE, with additional support from Brazil, Canada, France, and Italy. Aquarius is truly an international effort to better understand the water cycle that supports all life on Earth.

For more on Aquarius, including launch updates, check out the NASA Aquarius Mission page.

JPL: The Juno Mission

Juno and Jupiter (artist's concept, courtesy NASA)

Juno is going to Jupiter! The primary goal of this sleek satellite is, as NASA says, to “improve our understanding of Jupiter’s formation and evolution” so that we understand more about how planets form and develop both in our galaxy and in other galaxies across the skies.

Juno is in final preparations to launch from Kennedy Space Center, with the launch window opening August 5. Just last week, the three solar panels that will power Juno passed final test and were stowed in their folded configuration against the side of the satellite. Juno will be the first solar-powered satellite to go so far from Earth. How big are those solar panels? Each one is about the size of a tractor-trailer (minus the cab), but they will be so far from the Sun during the Jupiter orbits that their combined output will only be about 450 watts.

It takes a long time to get to Jupiter. How long? Well, Juno won’t get there for FIVE years, with planned arrival in July 2016. I don’t know where I’ll be in 2016, but the JPL crew running the Juno mission have plotted and will track the course over the next five years. A tiny satellite streaking towards Jupiter, it’s a unique image and I’m already rooting for the little guy to be a great success.

Once there, the plan is for Juno to circle Jupiter 32 times in a polar orbit (the opposite of an equatorial orbit), collecting data on the planet’s atmosphere, magnetic and gravity fields, and the magnetosphere near the poles. Jupiter has an enormous magnetic force field and Juno’s data will help scientists formulate how that magnetic field affects the atmosphere. As part of the atmospheric study, Juno will determine how much of the atmosphere is water, which will prove or disprove planet formation theory. Pretty serious science going on here!

For more details on Juno and its mission, you can dive into the official Juno Mission page on NASA’s web site.

Back to Space

I’m going to the NASATweetup at JPL in a few weeks so I am just a little behind in my reading about the missions they will showcase for us. But, better late than never! So I’ll be diving into each of the missions, one at a time, over the next week or so.

In the order I’ll be going through the NASA/JPL missions, here they are:

  • Aquarius will study sea surface salinity on our own planet Earth, to help us to better understand the water cycle.
  • Grail-A and Grail-B will be studying our moon’s gravity field after their November launch.
  • Juno will launch in August, headed to Jupiter, where it will be in a polar orbit to collect data about that planet’s atmosphere dynamics and gravity and magnetic fields.
  • The Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity rover is being built right now at JPL and will launch this fall, arriving on Mars in August, 2012.
  • Dawn, launched in 2007, is now almost to the first of the two asteroids it will study, Vesta. Where’s Vesta? Somewhere between Mars and Jupiter. So it’s taken Dawn 4 years to get there. Wow.
So, come with me on a journey through these missions and learn more about our solar system! 

Spirit, the Mars Rover

And before I sign off, today marks the last signal JPL sent to the Mars Rover named Spirit, the little rover that could. Originally built for 90 days, Spirit operated for 7 years until dead batteries and a very, very cold Martian winter combined to end the mission. So long, Spirit, and thank you for the magnificent views of Mars you sent. I was lucky enough at the NASA Ames Tweetup to go into the large simulator and see Mars projected 360 around the room, and experience the planet from a rover’s point of view. Pretty amazing stuff, both the sim technology and that a little six-wheeled wonder could collect all that and shoot it back to us through the blackness of space. For more details on Spirit, you can read this LA Times article.

Sunset walk

Concrete Ship at Sunset, Aptos CA

Beautiful evening for a walk, briskly moving along to keep from getting too cold. I can’t believe it’s mid-May and I’m wearing a fleece pullover and had to turn the heat on this morning in the house! Still, being close to the beach has its advantages, one of which is handy access to great sunsets. Today, the sky felt a million miles wide so I tried to capture that in my photos.

Looking south to Moss Landing

I couldn’t decide which of these two captured the mood better, so I am posting them both. Seems like a good end to the weekend to see a sky like this before facing down the work week.

Big Sur Running

The race course

I spent the weekend in Big Sur, enjoying time with friends and running a 10.6 mile race that was part of the Big Sur International Marathon series of races on May 1st. The course was beautiful, following the ups and downs of Highway 1 from Rocky Creek to Carmel. I took my pocket camera along to record the views and sights of the day, and posted an album on my website so you can see the whole thing from my eyes.

View from Space

New Zealand North Island from Space

Yeah, I’m a bit obsessed with space, with the International Space Station (ISS), and NASA stuff. I even follow the astronauts on Twitter. And here’s the secret about that last bit: the residents of the ISS have a killer Nikon 2Xs up there and they post some incredible views of our planet. The photographs regularly take my breath away: a full moon peeking over the horizon with the northern lights in play; Beijing at night so clear you can see the ring roads that encircle the city; the Himalayas as far as the eye (and camera lens) can see.

The newest astronaut to play photographer is also the newest resident of the ISS: Ron Garan (@astro_ron on twitter). His first picture from space was so gorgeous that he went back later and gave us a link to the high-resolution version. I put it on my 27-inch iMac screen as background and it feels like I’m up 220 miles up in the ISS, too. Do yourself and your imagination a favor and take 2 minutes to click on the link above , then hit “view full size” on that page, and prepare to feast your eyes on the high-resolution photograph (it’s a big 5MB file so be patient if you’re on a slow line). It may be the most wondrous thing you see all day.

(Thanks to @astro_ron for being today’s guest photographer!)