CU Boulder scientists hail Juno's entry into Jupiter's orbit
Charlie Brennan Daily Camera
As fireworks were taking place Monday night on Earth, numerous pairs of eyes belonging to scientists at the University of Colorado were more closely fixed on celestial pyrotechnics some 1.7 billion miles away.
The NASA spacecraft Juno was successfully inserted into Jupiter's orbit at 9:53 p.m. MDT Monday — just 7 minutes before the big holiday display began at Folsom Field. For the team led by Fran Bagenal at CU's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, choosing between the two aerial shows was no contest.
"I was in an auditorium with about 400 other scientists and friends and family, all cheering and jumping up and down. It was great," Bagenal said.
Bagenal, who co-chairs the Juno Magnetospheric Working Group for NASA and is coordinating many of the mission's science observations, was at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., which is managing the $1.1 billion Juno enterprise. She returns to Boulder on Wednesday.
Juno scientists hope the ensuing exploration of the gaseous giant — conducted through orbiting Jupiter's poles 33 times at about 3,000 miles above its surface — will reveal far more than has ever been known about its hidden interior and also provide answers as to how our own solar system was formed.
The suspense, as Juno — the size of a Volkswagen but with three solar panels giving it a 65-foot-plus diameter -— slipped through intense radiation belts and skimmed over Jupiter's clouds at almost 130,000 mph, was considerable.
"I was very nervous. I was thinking, what's going to happen, what's going to happen?" Bagenal said. "A lot of things could go wrong. It's a place we had never explored before. The hazards were substantial.
"It is very strong radiation environment, very close to the planet, and we had to thread between the radiation belt on the outside and clouds on the inside, and we're going through this narrow slot and not really knowing where the edges of the slot were, and would the radiation be harmful to spacecraft?"
Also feeling the tension was LASP professor Robert Ergun, an expert on Earth's magnetosphere and associated polar auras, who will be among those analyzing data as it is returned from Juno in coming weeks and months to compare Jupiter's physical processes with those of our own planet.
"This is the most critical maneuver that the mission goes through," Ergun said. "It's a major, 35-minute-long rocket burn, that has to be done solo by the spacecraft. We can't help it, because it takes 40 minutes to communicate to Jupiter and 40 minutes (for communications) to come back. So, you can't joystick it from Earth. There's just no way. All the decisions have to be called by the navigation system on board."
Surviving the intense radiation, the solar-powered spacecraft — built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Littleton — completed its five-year journey to Jupiter safely. Its entry into orbit circling Jupiter's poles was deemed flawless by mission control.
Juno's suite of nine scientific instruments were turned off during engine firing as Juno made its perilous approach, but will be turned back on Thursday. With that, a stream of data back to Earth will begin, and continue through Juno's planned termination with a dive into the planet's core in February 2018.
Kaleb Bodisch, an undergraduate employee of LASP starting his senior year this fall at CU as a dual astrophysics and computer science major, is one of five undergraduate and graduate student members of the Juno team at the university.
Part of Bodisch's assignment has been re-analyzing Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 data — applying new methods to get what he called a "time-evolved" picture of Jupiter — to learn how it might have changed from 1979 to 2016.
He has relished the chance to be a part of an historical benchmark in space exploration, contributing to a mission that launched Aug. 5, 2011, before he even enrolled at CU
"On top of studying solar system formation, we plan to look at plasma, magnetic field and electron data in order to enhance our knowledge of auroral processes both at Jupiter and at Earth," Bodisch explained. "From this data, we will better understand how gas and ions — both entering and leaving Jupiter's atmosphere — help to form the most intense aurora in the solar system."
On the near horizon, Bagenal is already anticipating Aug. 27, the next time Juno will orbit Jupiter's poles.
"We'll be getting fantastic observations, looking down on the aurora as we fly through the region where those aurora particles are accelerated and sent bombarding into the atmosphere," Bagenal said.
Bagenal has also worked on five other NASA planetary missions, including Galileo, which reached Jupiter in 1995, carrying two LASP instruments. CU has no instrument on board Juno, with its scientists serving strictly in a data analysis role. The excitement locally is nevertheless still keen.
"Juno's a great mission, and it's so far has been very successful," Ergun said. "Let the science begin."