Jupiter reigns over our solar system — a gas giant shrouded in mystery. Two and a half times the mass of all the other planets in our solar system combined, it is believed to hold answers to the formation of our own galaxy. Now, scientists may soon begin to understand the enigma that is Jupiter. Space.com reports that NASA, assisted by Lockheed Martin Space Systems, has begun construction on Juno, a new space probe destined for Jupiter.
Jupiter is believed to be primarily composed of hydrogen with a quarter of its mass made of helium. Perpetually covered in ammonia clouds, the planet is not all gas. Some believe Jupiter may also have a rocky core of heavier elements. Despite previous efforts, much of the planet is still largely unknown. Early Pioneer and Voyager spacecrafts performed flyby missions. Galileo, launched in 1989, tried to get closer, but the spacecraft was intentionally crashed into the gas giant after scientists determined it was being crushed by Jupiter’s atmosphere. Jupiter’s moons, most notably Europa, have also been examined.
And now, we’re going back. Scientists are excited to learn more about Jupiter, but they also say this new research will help them understand new planetary systems that are just now being discovered. Space.com reports that the mission is slated to launch in August 2011, and reach Jupiter in 2016. Led by astronomer Scott Bolton of Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, preparations began April 1 at Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver, Colo. As Bolton told Space.com, "We're excited the puzzle pieces are coming together. We're one important step closer to getting to Jupiter."
The Juno probe will be powered by solar wings. Space.com writes that it will also contain “nine science instruments on board to investigate the existence of a solid planetary core, map Jupiter's intense magnetic field, measure the amount of water and ammonia in the deep atmosphere, and observe the planet's auroras.” Until then, scientists will be doing their utmost to ensure Juno is ready for the trip.
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