Space holds many mysteries. Our own solar system is one of them. While we know quite a bit about our neighboring planets, we basically know nothing when compared with how much we could know.
NASA's Juno spacecraft has been orbiting Jupiter in order to give us an insight into the celestial bodies that share our space. The Juno spacecraft recently completed its 8th flyby of Jupiter, sending home to NASA several stunning images, and with them, more knowledge of this great galaxy we live in. We are now one step closer to unlocking the secrets of the universe.
In August 2011, NASA launched the $1.1 billion Juno mission. The probe reached Jupiter's orbit on July 4, 2016. Since then, Juno has been using its instruments to give us insight into Jupiter's atmosphere, composition, magnetic and gravitational fields, and the gas giant's structure. We now have information that Galileo would have only dreamed of when he first got a gander of the gas giant through his revolutionary telescope.
Juno's elliptical orbit brings the probe close to Jupiter once every 53.5 Earth days. Juno has been collecting most of its information from those flybys. So far, Juno has completed eight flybys since arriving at Jupiter in 2016.
The most recent flyby took place on October 24th. However, the flyby's success was not confirmed until October 31st due to a delay in communication between Juno and Earth. However, it was worth the wait, because the photographs Juno sent back are stunning.
Juno gets pretty up close and personal with the gas giant. The closest Juno gets to Jupiter is within 2,100 miles of the planet's cloud top. Because of the close proximity, we've been able to see some pretty stunning images of Jupiter. It turns out, the intense, swirling atmosphere of Jupiter is pretty photogenic!
On the most recent Juno flyby, the probe did not get any photos of Jupiter's famous Great Red Spot. However, Juno did capture another swirling storm on Jupiter's surface. Scientists found a several cyclones at Jupiter's poles. Scientists would have been unable to spot these storms without the aid of Juno.
The information and photographs scientists have been receiving from Juno is nothing short of amazing. "There is no more exciting place to be than in orbit around Jupiter and no team I’d rather be with than the Juno team. Our spacecraft is in great shape, and the team is looking forward to many more flybys of the solar system’s largest planet," said Juno project manager Ed Hirst of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
If there's one thing that Juno has shown us is that Jupiter is a complex planet with many secrets to reveal. On a previous flyby, Juno found that Jupiter's auroras are more powerful than any aurora seen on Earth. In fact, they almost seem to defy the laws of physics as we know them on our planet. “Almost nothing is as we anticipated,” said Scott Bolton, Juno’s principal investigator. “But it’s exciting that Jupiter is so different than we assumed.”
Additionally, Juno has told us volumes about Jupiter's gravitational pull, as the probe measures the pull on each flyby. Already, we know that Jupiter's core is "fuzzy," small, and poorly defined. Jupiter is proving that it isn't a tough nut to crack.
We also now know that Jupiter's gravitational field is askew. The Northern and Southern hemispheres of the planet each have different planets. Because of this, scientists believe that there might be hydrogen-rich gas with an "asymmetrical" flow hidden deep inside Jupiter. "This is something that was not expected," said Tristan Guillot, a planetary scientist at the Observatory of the Côte d'Azur in Nice, France. "We were not sure at all whether we would be able to see that."
Scientists predict that the bigger the gravity signal of a planet is, the stronger the planet's gas flows deep below the surface. Thanks to Juno, scientists have a clearer idea of Jupiter's gravity signal. They are now one step closer to figuring out if the interior of Jupiter spins as one single entity, or if there are many layers within the planet, like an onion, all spinning separately.
The gravity signal picked up by Juno suggests that there might be material flowing deep down inside Jupiter. "We're just taking the clouds and the winds and extending them into the interior," said Yohai Kaspi ,a geophysicist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. Furthermore, Kaspi said that determining if the winds of Jupiter that give the planet it's colorful bands stay at the surface or go deeper within the planet is "one of the main goals of the Juno mission."
Scientists also might unlock the secrets of the Great Red Spot based off of gravitational information gleaned from Juno. It's already been hinted that the Great Red Spot might extend hundred of kilometers below the surface of Jupiter, and perhaps further. "It's not yet clear that it is so deep it will show up in gravity data," said David Stevenson, a planetary scientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "But we're trying."
Juno is scheduled to do another flyby of Jupiter on December 16th. The probe is scheduled to study the gas giant until July 2018. However, there is a possibility NASA may extend the probe's mission. Who know what secrets the probe will uncover by then!