Will NASA's latest mission uncover the origins of our solar system?
An astrophysicist on Juno's team explains why learning about Jupiter teaches us about ourselves.
As we watched fireworks on July 4, another celestial object did something even more spectacular. NASA's spacecraft, Juno, started orbiting around Jupiter, a destination it has been flying toward for five years and across almost 2 billion miles. It'll be the first spacecraft to travel to Jupiter equipped with advanced technology and instruments.
This is obviously exciting from a geeky "OMG, we're in space" perspective, but we wanted to know what was so important about this mission. So we sat down with Professor Ravit Helled, an astrophysicist from Israel's Tel Aviv University who has been working on Juno's team since 2008.
Helled, who Forbes magazine named one of the 50 most influential women in Israel, models the structure and investigates the origin of Jupiter, a planet that scientists tend to be pretty interested in.
"By understanding Jupiter better, we will understand better the origin of our solar system, and also planet formation in general," Helled told From the Grapevine. "We don’t know exactly how giant planets form, and getting more information on the composition of Jupiter and whether it has a core will give us the answer."
Helled hopes Juno can help scientists figure how how planets form, what our solar system's planets are made of, and if we can link planet structure to their creation and evolution. To find these answers, Juno will take a number of measurements, such as the depth of winds on the planet and the intensity of its magnetic field. Juno will also measure the amount of water in Jupiter's atmosphere (some pretty old stuff), which could further help explain Jupiter's origin.
"I am most interested in getting information on Jupiter's gravitational field," Helled said, explaining that this bit of information could help her figure out what Jupiter is actually made of.
In some ways, people have connected Jupiter with the origins of the solar system for thousands of years. Jupiter was the king of the gods in ancient Roman mythology, and he fathered Mars, Apollo and Hercules. Juno, the Roman queen of the gods, was his twin. The two were some of the Latin world's most ancient deities, and they're found together in terracotta statuettes and inscriptions. Thanks to NASA, the couple is reuniting at last.
"Jupiter and Juno" by 18th-century Austrian artist Frans Christoph Janneck. (Photo: Wikipedia)
Juno only started orbiting Jupiter a couple days ago, so the results won't start coming in for at least a few weeks. They'll certainly be weeks filled with anticipation for scientists, who have been thinking about these questions for centuries and are finally about to get some answers.
"Jupiter is the most massive planet in the solar system and the first one to form," Helled told us. "It clearly affected the formation of our planetary system, and understanding Jupiter’s formation helps to understand the origin of the solar system."
The Juno mission ends on Feb. 20, 2018, when Juno is expected to crash into Jupiter.
"While Juno is a NASA mission, it is very international and consists of people from countries around the world," she said. "It has been incredible to be a part of it."
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Related Topics: Space