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NASA's armored tank arrives for 20 month investigation of Jupiter

Posted July 3, 2016 9:55 p.m. EDT
Updated July 13, 2018 2:58 p.m. EDT

Most spacecrafts are built lightweight, but not Juno. It is built like an armored tank. It has to be.

“Jupiter is really, really hazardous,” says to Scott Bolton, Juno’s principal investigator at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI).

I was at the August 2011 launch and it was unlike any other I’ve seen. Juno was launched atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V-551, the most powerful of that rocket family. Andrew Aldrin, Director of Advanced Programs, assured everyone that ULA had prepared a special vehicle to lift Juno; one that will “really jump off the pad.”

Andrew should know, he grew up around the space program. His father was the second man to walk on the moon.

NASA’s New Horizons mission was also launched by the 551 version. New Horizons needed the power to accelerate it on its long trip to Pluto. Juno needed the power to get 2,821 pounds of fuel, 1,658 pounds of oxidizer and 3,513 pounds of spacecraft off the ground.

40 pounds of that spacecraft is an eight sided titanium box about the size of an SUV’s trunk with walls about a third of an inch thick. This vault provides protection the spacecraft’s most-sensitive instruments from a planet’s intense belts of radiation.

Juno’s primary science goal is to understand the origin and evolution of Jupiter. Juno’s instruments will help scientists look beneath its dense cloud cover for secrets about the fundamental processes and conditions that governed our solar system during its formation.

Instruments aboard Juno will map the planet’s atmosphere, measure water content, characterize and explore the three-dimensional structure of Jupiter’s polar magnetosphere and auroras and map its gravitational and magnetic fields to hopefully provide some answers to questions about Jupiter’s internal structure.

Personally, I’m looking forward to learning more about the Great Red Spot, the giant, crimson-colored vortex twice as wide as Earth. First described by 1667 by Giovanni Domenico Cassini. In recent years, the Great Red Spot has been shrinking in width. Juno will hopefully help us understand what, if any, relationship the Great Red Spot has with what lies beneath those cloud tops.

Knowledge gained from Jupiter doesn’t stop there. As our primary example of a giant planet, Jupiter can also provide critical knowledge for understanding the planetary systems being discovered around other stars.

Unlike most NASA missions, Juno isn’t an acronym but is instead named for the wife of the mythological Roman god Jupiter. Jupiter drew a veil of clouds to hide his mischief, but this was no match for Juno who was able to peer through the clouds and reveal Jupiter's true nature.

NASA mini LEGO figurines

NASA partnered with LEGO to create some special passengers: 3 mini-figurines, milled from a space-grade aluminum, of Jupiter, Juno, and Galileo Galilei who discovered Jupiter’s four largest moons.

Unlike the nine mission extensions announced on July 2, (New Horizons, Dawn, Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey orbiter, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, MAVEN, Mars Opportunity and Curiosity rovers, and NASA’s support for the European Space Agency’s Mars Express mission) Juno’s primary mission will be its only one.

The radiation fried spacecraft will be intentionally de-orbited into Jupiter at mission’s end. It will be ripped apart as it plunges into the then not-so unknown interior. This satisfies NASA’s planetary protection requirements, ensuring that Juno does not impact Jovian moons like Europa one of the best candidates for finding microbial life in our solar system.

You can follow along with the mission with a live broadcast on NASA TV beginning at 10:30 pm Monday. For a dual screen experience, download NASA’s free Eyes on the Solar System app for Mac, PC or Linux. It uses real mission data to render detail models of the planets and spacecraft.

I also like to have Deep Space Network Now up during big events like this to watch telemetry coming down in real time from Juno and other spacecraft exploring the solar system. It’s the next best thing to being at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Space Flight Operations Facility.