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JUNO spacecraft's Fourth of July rendezvous with Jupiter!

This article appeared in the June 24, 2016 edition of the Davis Enterprise.


By Vinita Domier

Special to the Enterprise


On the evening of July 4, 2016, while most of us are rendezvousing with family and friends to watch the Independence Day fireworks, NASA's spacecraft JUpiter Near-polar Orbiter (JUNO) will be rendezvousing with Jupiter after a five-year, 1.74 billion-mile journey from Earth.


JUNO will be only the second robotic spacecraft to actually orbit and study Jupiter extensively since NASA’s Galileo orbited the planet from 1995-2003. Seven others, Pioneer 10 and 11, Voyager 1 and 2, Ulysses, Cassini-Huygens, and New Horizons, have been fly-by missions that studied Jupiter briefly as they whizzed past the planet.


During its mission, JUNO will orbit the gas-giant planet 37 times in a 20-month period. Upon arrival at Jupiter, JUNO will initially perform two 53-day orbital passes around the planet, and then settle into a highly elliptical 14-day polar orbit from October 2016 to February 2018. At the end of its mission, the spacecraft will be intentionally crashed into Jupiter.


From its vantage of a mere 2672 miles above Jupiter's poles at closest approach during each orbital pass, JUNO will study the planet's composition, gravity, magnetic field, and polar magnetosphere in great detail to enhance our understanding of the planet's, and by extension the solar system's origin.


Just like its mythical namesake, the goddess Juno, JUNO’s highly advanced on-board suite of scientific instruments will also ‘peer’ under Jupiter’s outer cloud layers to determine whether the planet has a solid core, measure water and ammonia content in the atmosphere, and observe auroras at the poles.


Powered during its long journey solely by the energy collected by its three solar panels, JUNO will also set the long distance record for solar-powered spacecrafts. As Jupiter receives only about 4% sunlight relative to Earth, each solar panel is 8.9 feet wide and 29 feet long to maximize its radiation-gathering surface. These solar panels are the largest used by any planetary spacecraft to date.


Earth-bound observers can also view Jupiter (visual magnitude: -1.8 in Leo constellation) as a bright object high in the summer evening sky, eventually dipping below the horizon around midnight. Viewing the planet through even a medium-sized telescope will reveal its distinctive cloud bands and one to four of its Galilean moons - Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto.


Planets Saturn (visual magnitude: +1.0 in Ophiuchus constellation) and Mars (visual magnitude: -1.4 in Libra constellation) are also visible to the naked eye in the summer nights. As the moon is approaching last quarter phase on June 27, now is an ideal time to observe these planets without moonlight obscuring their relative brilliance.


Please join the Explorit Science Center Astronomy Club on Saturday, June 25 starting at 7:30pm at the Explorit Science Center (3141 5th Street, Davis) when we will discuss the JUNO mission in particular and the planet Jupiter in general. Everyone is invited to the free meeting indoors, followed by a star party outdoors (weather permitting).



Explorit’s coming events:


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