NASA’s Juno spacecraft is creeping up on Jupiter, with just 48 million miles left in its journey before entering into orbit around the solar system’s largest planet. The plan is to unravel some of the gas giant’s secrets, with the help of some high-tech instruments — and you.
On NASA’s JunoCam(https://www.missionjuno.swri.edu/junocam), amateur astronomers are invited to upload their own images of Jupiter, and suggest features worthy of investigation during the mission. True to her Roman namesake, Juno will select points of interest democratically, focusing on the regions that generate the most public interest.
In Roman mythology, the goddess Juno cleared the clouds around her husband, Jupiter, to catch him doing things he shouldn’t. “That’s exactly what the Juno spacecraft does for us,” says Scott Bolton, principal investigator with the Southwest Research Institute, in a YouTube video. “It goes there with special instruments and a special orbit and uses its powers to see right through Jupiter’s clouds and understand its true nature, which is holding these secrets for us about how the solar system formed and where we all came from.”
Juno is expected to reach Jupiter on July 4, 2016. The spacecraft launched in 2011 and has already traveled 1.7 billion miles. Its current position is 413 million miles from Earth. You can check on the spacecraft’s progress using NASA’s Eyes on the Solar System application.
Inviting amateurs to participate in scientific discovery is the new normal for the world, especially in astronomy. For example, NASA has reached out to the public for help designing CubeSats — little satellites that will explore deep space.
One problem in contemporary astronomy is that all the satellites and telescopes researchers use are bringing in an overwhelming volume of data. Citizen scientists have been recruited here, too, as a solution to this problem. On sites like Galaxy Zoo, Asteroid Zoo, and Planet Hunters, armchair space explorers can sift through images of the universe, looking for specific features and clues that could lead to the next big discovery just by using their computers.
What will Juno help NASA and its amateur scientist army find on Jupiter? It’s hard to say, but that’s half the fun. You’ll want to pull up a chair. “Jupiter is the most massive planet in the solar system,” says Dave Stevenson, an investigator with Caltech. “It is the body you want to understand in order to understand the architecture of everything else — including Earth.”