A solar-powered spacecraft manufactured in Colorado is set to take off this morning for a 400-million-mile odyssey to Jupiter to shed light on the formation of solar systems and the role water plays in them.
The ship that Denver-based Lockheed Martin Space Systems Co. built is the size of a Volkswagen until it unfurls three solar panels that expand the spinning spacecraft to more than 65 feet. It isn’t projected to arrive in Jupiter’s atmosphere until 2016, when it will begin to circle the gas giant’s poles 33 times, skimming 3,000 miles above the cloud tops.
Juno, as this NASA mission is called, is expected to help finish what the last one, Galileo, started.
“One of the biggest questions left after the Galileo mission was how much water there is in Jupiter’s atmosphere,” said University of Colorado at Boulder Professor Fran Bagenal, a mission co-investigator. “The amount of water is key, because water played a huge role in the formation of the solar system.”
The Galileo mission arrived at the planet in 1995 — carrying a pair of instruments developed by CU-Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics — before exploding, on purpose, in 2003. That quest identified the dynamics of the planet’s magnetic activity, confirmed the presence of ammonia clouds in its atmosphere and revealed one of Jupiter’s moons, Europa, has a global ocean beneath its thick ice crust.
The Juno spacecraft will probe farther into Jupiter’s radiant atmosphere than the Galileo orbiter as it maps the planet’s gravitational and magnetic fields.
The mass of Jupiter, which is the fifth planet from the sun, is more than twice as large as all of the other planets in the solar system combined.
Scientists believe it holds the scientific history of how planets formed and why some are rock and some are gas.
“We are going to be using a microwave detector and fly just over the clouds of Jupiter, looking down at different cloud depths to measure the amounts of water below,” said Bagenal who will study the unmanned spacecraft’s findings from earth along with a CU-Boulder team that includes Professor Robert Ergun, research associate Peter Delomere, graduate student Mariel Desroche and undergraduate senior Dinesh Costlow.
The CU team is especially interested in learning about the crackling electricity at Jupiter’s poles — the magnetic fields that produce its fantastically colorful northern and southern lights. The planet turns on its access every 10 hours, creating monstrous auroras as its magnetic field is dragged across space.
“This will be the first time anyone has flown over the poles of Jupiter to look directly down on the aurora,” Bagenal said. “We will be flying the spacecraft through regions where charged particles are accelerated to the point of bombarding the atmosphere of Jupiter hard enough to make it glow at the poles.”
Juno and its instruments will be encased in a protective titanium vault to survive the intense radiation.
While the planet is mostly made of hydrogen and helium, it is believed to contain a rocky core that scientists surmise could potentially be 15 to 20 times the size of earth.
The Colorado-built spacecraft’s ride to space comes courtesy of the Atlas V 551, operated by United Launch Alliance, a Lockheed Martin-Boeing venture based in Centennial, Colo. The mission’s principal investigator is Scott Bolton of Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas. The Juno mission is being managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
Even though there will be no humans on this journey into deep space, there will be Lego men. NASA this week confirmed that three Lego figures designed to look like Galileo Galilei, the Italian scientist who first spotted Jupiter through a telescope, the Roman thunderbolt-wielding god Jupiter and his wife, Juno will be aboard the craft.
The mission is scheduled to launch at 9:34 a.m. MDT from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.