NASA’s Juno spacecraft made its fourth successful flyby of Jupiter last week, collecting more data on the gas giant and passing at an estimated 4,300 kilometres above Jupiter’s clouds.
“The Juno science team continues to analyze returns from previous flybys,” said NASA in a statement. “Revelations include that Jupiter’s magnetic fields and aurora are bigger and more powerful than originally thought and that the belts and zones that give the gas giant’s cloud top its distinctive look extend deep into the planet’s interior.”
Launched in August of 2011, the Juno mission aims to learn more about the composition of Jupiter, to find out whether or not the planet has a solid core and to delve into the role that Jupiter, as the largest planet in the solar system, played in the creation of the solar system and the other planets.
“Juno’s looking at how Jupiter was formed and how planets are made in general,” says NASA’s Scott Bolton, principle investigator on the Juno mission, to Space.com. “We’re very much looking for the recipe for planets.”
“Jupiter is sort of a linchpin planet,” said Moritz Heimpel, physics professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, to the Toronto Star. “Most of the planets that have been recently discovered that are outside the solar system are Jupiter-like, they are also gas giants.”
“Understanding how the deep interior of Jupiter works will give us an understanding of a lot of the objects in the solar system and in the universe. It’s one of the ways we’ll understand how things work in the universe,” said Heimpel.
Juno has been described as an armoured tank in outer space due to its central titanium-lined box that holds all of the spacecraft’s components. The protection is needed to shield the craft’s electronics from Jupiter’s intense radiation field.
The spacecraft was fitted with the first ever “interplanetary outreach camera,” which is operated in connection with input from the general public. In January, members of the public were asked to vote on where to point the camera during the recent flyby. JunoCam took pictures along the two-hour flyby on February 1, starting at Jupiter’s north pole and all the way to the south pole.
NASA’s raw images from the JunoCam project are being made available online for download, and the space agency is encouraging the public to get involved by creating and uploading their own processed versions of the images.
Only the second spacecraft to orbit Jupiter, Juno’s elliptical orbit is currently bringing it close to the planet once every 53 days — much longer than the originally intended 14 days between flybys. At least temporarily, engine and software glitches have caused NASA to alter the spacecraft’s course. In 2013, Juno actually used a flyby of Earth two years into its mission to propel it out towards Jupiter, a maneuver known as a gravity assist.
“If we can start to understand the role that Jupiter played [in forming the solar system],” says Bolton, “then we know a little bit about how to look for other Earth-like planets orbiting other stars and how common these might be.”