Star Stuff is a weekly column by rocket scientist & astrophysicist Summer Ash highlighting some amazing things happening every day on and off the planet, especially great science done by and/or for women. She harnesses her science communication powers to smash the patriarchy and advocate for equality and inclusion across all time and space. Throwdowns with pseudoscience may occur.
NASA’s Juno mission has been at Jupiter for just under a year and a half and with every image it sends back, there is a collective gasp from #spacetwitter. If you thought Jupiter was gorgeous before, prepare to have your mind blown by its swirly, twirly cloud tops. Now I know I already wrote about how Saturn must be freaking kidding with its stunningly stark imagery, but Jupiter is also clearly messing with us because it does Van Gogh better than Van Gogh.
The Juno mission differs from the Cassini mission in several ways. Cassini was a flagship class mission, the largest and most expensive class of NASA’s three Solar System mission classes. Both Voyagers were flagship mission, as was Galileo, the last mission to study Jupiter up close. Galileo ended in 2003 as it plunged to a fiery death in Jupiter’s atmosphere to avoid even the smallest chance that it would otherwise crash into (and contaminate) one of Jupiter’s moons. Until last summer, the giant of our Solar System was left unattended for almost 13 years.
Juno was launched in August of 2011 and took almost five years to reach the Jovian system. But when it did, it was worth the wait.
While Cassini was equipped with a powerful imaging system as one of its primary mission instruments, Juno’s Junocam is not explicitly intended for capturing scientific images. Instead, it’s more of a tool for public engagement and citizen science. The spacecraft is equipped with a total of nine instruments, all of which (besides the Junocam) operate outside the visible part of the spectrum. The goals of the mission include mapping Jupiter’s gravitational and magnetic fields and determining the composition of its atmosphere, including the abundance of water. The latter of which will tell us more about the role Jupiter played in the formation of our Solar System.
Lastly, Cassini’s original mission lifetime was only three years, but the spacecraft performed so well, it had several mission extensions to keep it in orbit around Saturn for over 13 years. Juno’s planned lifetime is only two years and the possibility of mission extensions is slim to none thanks to Jupiter's intense and deadly radiation environment. Each orbit the spacecraft makes sends it inside the gas giants radiation belts, meaning it crosses the strongest radiation zones twice - once on the way in and once on the way out. Juno is essentially our robotic pet plowing through its invisible fence and getting the shock of its life. The spacecraft was designed with this in mind - it’s equipped with a titanium vault to shield its scientific instrument from the radiation equivalent of 100 million dental x-rays each year (my teeth hurt just thinking of that). But even with that protection, the vault will eventually be compromised, hence the spacecraft’s limited lifetime.
The original orbital plan for Juno had the spacecraft dropping into two 53-day orbits upon its arrival last summer and then transitioning into a smaller 14-day orbit for the remainder of the mission. However, just prior to this orbital transition, two of the spacecraft’s helium check valves malfunctioned and NASA became concerned that if they tried to fire the main engine again, they might under/overshoot the desired orbit. They decided to play it safe, so as of February 2017, they locked in the 53-day orbit for good, for a total of 12 science orbits by the end of the mission. This means fewer passes through the danger zones, but looking on the bright side though, it also means scientists will get a better look at not just the inside of Jupiter’s magnetosphere, but the outer reaches of it as well.
Let’s get back to talking about the pretty stuff. Every time Juno swoops close to Jupiter’s cloud tops and “buzzes the tower” so to speak, the Junocam gets an unprecedented view of the planet’s dynamic and turbulent atmosphere. Because the camera is not a primary instrument, the stunning images that have been making the rounds are all processed by the public, some of whom work in astronomy or planetary science and some of whom are just enthusiastic supports are space exploration.
Here are a few phenomenal images that have me once again asking: are you freaking kidding me, Jupiter?
I spoke briefly with two women in science who have also processed Juno images to hear more about their draw to Jupiter and their experiences with the raw data. Sophia Nasr is a graduate student at the University of California-Irvine studying astroparticle physics and Rose Ferreira currently works in healthcare with plans to go back to school to study both neuro and space science.
Nasr first started processing the raw images from Cassini that NASA made available. “It just became real to me, that this mission that's revealed Saturn and its system to the world, was going to end,” she told me. “I wanted to be part of bringing its mission to life, revealing Saturn in ways we've never seen it before.” She describes the opportunity to be part of the creative process turning Junocam images into the resulting stunning and colorful images as “one of the coolest things” to be available to the public.
Ferreira has been following the Juno mission since its cruise phase on the way to Jupiter. Before Junocam she had never tried processing raw planetary images, but once she heard through #spacetwitter that anyone could do it, she jumped right in. “Coming from a background of no science exposure at all to being able to get anywhere near these images is an incredible feeling.”
If you want this incredible feeling for yourself, you can access all the Junocam images here. And if you want to throw your space-loving hat into the ring and try your hand at processing them, take your pick and photoshop your heart out. Be sure to share them with #spacetwitter when you're done for your very own collective gasp.