Jupiter mission to solve puzzle of universe
Published 06/08/2011 | 05:00
NASA HAS launched a solar-powered spacecraft on a five-year mission to Jupiter.
The robotic explorer, named Juno, blasted off aboard an unmanned rocket yesterday from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It will take Juno five years to reach the largest planet in the solar system.
Juno is solar powered, a first for a spacecraft intended to roam so far from the sun. The total mission will cost $1.1bn (€770m).
Scientists hope to discover how the solar system was formed by identifying Jupiter's secret ingredients. The gas giant is believed to be the solar system's oldest planet.
Juno is manned in one sense, though -- attached to the craft are three Lego figures. They represent the Italian physicist Galileo, who discovered Jupiter's biggest moons; the Roman god Jupiter; and his wife Juno, after whom the spacecraft is named.
Upon arrival in July 2016, Juno is to spend a year in a polar orbit around the giant planet, measuring its water content, mapping its magnetic fields and searching for a solid core.
With more than twice the mass of all its sibling planets combined, Jupiter is believed to hold a key piece to the puzzle of how the planets formed some 4.65 billion years ago.
"We're really looking for the recipe for planet formation," said Juno lead scientist Scott Bolton, with the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas.
"We're going after the ingredients of Jupiter by getting the water abundance as well as very precise measurements of the gravity field which will help us understand whether there's a core of heavy elements or a core of rocks in the middle of Jupiter," he said.
To make its observations, Juno will soar as close as 5,000km above Jupiter's cloud tops, the first spacecraft to fly inside the planet's radiation belts.
Now that NASA has retired its shuttle fleet, the US space agency is making the shift toward robotic probes in trying to understand the cosmos.