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Space Probe Juno Is Orbiting Jupiter—Now What?

It may help uncover the very beginning of life

Juno's NASA team discusses next steps (Getty Images)

The internet is all abuzz with some huge interplanetary news: NASA’s space probe Juno is now orbiting Jupiter after a harrowing, five-year interstellar journey. So what happens now?

Juno’s goal isn’t minor. It’s looking for nothing less than knowledge on exactly how our solar system was formed. For all the advances science has made in regards to space travel and knowledge acquisition, there are still wide swaths of missing information. Juno can hopefully fill in some blanks.

Jupiter was the first planet to form in our solar system, and likely impacted the orbits of every other planet. The key to these mysteries may largely lie within Jupiter’s well-documented magnetic field.

"Juno is searching for hints about our beginnings," Scott Bolton, the ever-poetic lead Juno investigator, said Monday during a press conference. "These secrets are well-guarded by Jupiter."

But how does an unmanned probe go about obtaining this kind of complex data? At a brisk clip of 130,000 miles per hour, Juno will capture a vast storehouse of images over the next 20 months (the $1.1 billion mission’s duration). Scientists back on Earth will use these images to draw conclusions on many open questions.

According to Mashable, these questions include: whether Jupiter was on its way to being a star during the solar system’s formation, whether Jupiter moved closer to the sun after formation, and how Jupiter’s famed auroras work. Also, researchers expect to find as-yet-undiscovered moons, on top of more than 60 they’ve already catalogued.

One other spacecraft, Galileo, also made entry into the planet’s orbit several years back. But Galileo didn’t have nearly the level of sophisticated data collection tools of Juno, which is also getting much closer to the planet itself, giving it the ability to assess, say, how much water Jupiter contains.

It will not be an easy mission, by any means. NASA made a faux-action trailer (see below) with grim-faced scientists talking about the heavy radiation and hurtling objects Juno will have to weather. Bolton repeatedly referred to Jupiter as a “planet on steroids” during yesterday’s news conference, but Juno is kitted out with a fearsome titanium vault to protect its vital innards from peril.

Hopefully this protection is adequate, because it’s not like this craft is staring down your every day terrestrial threat. To quote Dr. Heidi Becker, leader of Juno’s radiation monitoring team, in the New York Times: “They will go right through a spacecraft and strip the atoms apart inside your electronics and fry your brain if you don’t do anything about it.” Good luck, Juno!

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