The launch window for NASA’s next mission, one the agency is calling a “five-year cruise to Jupiter”, opens next week, and scientists are hoping it will answer some giant questions about the giant planet.
Juno, named after the god Jupiter’s wife in Greek and Roman mythology, has been in the making since the early 2000s. In the ancient Roman stories, Jupiter, the god of the sky, pulled a veil of clouds around himself to hide his mischief, and only his wife was able to peek through and see him as he truly was.
The Juno mission has been designed to do the same thing. Set to analyze the planet’s atmosphere, gravitation, and magnetic fields when it reaches Jupiter in 2016, it is the second mission within NASA’s New Frontiers Program. The first was a mission to the Plutonian moon Charon, that launched in 2006.
The origins behind the planet’s name and nicknames represent a long time fascination with the immense alien sphere. The largest planet in our solar system, it’s often called the “Giant among giants,” but the real appeal of the planet is not limited to its enormous size. The “Great Red Spot,” famously seen in photographs taken on some of the earliest Jupiter missions, has been a point of scientific curiosity for decades.
The spot itself is a spinning storm, much like a hurricane, called an anti-cyclone. An anti-cyclone is a high-pressure storm, meaning it rotates against the Coriolis Effect. The Coriolis Effect can be thought of as the apparent deflection of winds along a planet’s surface. In the northern hemisphere of a rotating planet, winds are deflected to the right as they approach the eye of a hurricane, creating storms that spin counter clockwise, and in the southern hemisphere, they spin clockwise. For example, a weather system rotating clockwise in the Earth’s northern hemisphere would be a high-pressure system and considered anti-cyclonic.
Sustained by Jupiter’s tremendous heat, much like hurricanes are sustained over the warm oceans, the red storm on Jupiter has existed for as long as humans have been observing the planet and is large enough to contain three Earths within its boundaries. Some speculations suggest that the color of the storm is due to phosphorous compounds within the atmosphere, but that has yet to be confirmed. If successful, the Juno mission will be able to prove or disprove that theory and give scientists further insight into the planet’s formation.