Astronomy discussion group ponders future of solar system missions


On Friday afternoons, the Physics and Astronomy Department hosts a weekly astronomy discussion, in which a recent development in astronomy research is reviewed by students and professors.

This week, Visiting Assistant Professor Greg Hallenbeck led a discussion on Juno, the NASA spacecraft currently in an orbit of Jupiter, having entered orbit in July 2016.

Model of the spacecraft Juno, currently in orbit around the planet Jupiter. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Model of the spacecraft Juno, currently in orbit
around the planet Jupiter. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

This spacecraft, along with the recent mission to Pluto called New Horizons, is part of NASA’s New Frontiers program, which continues with an asteroid sampling mission, OSIRIS-REx, in 2020.

Juno was launched in August 2011, beginning a five-year journey to Jupiter, which it has been orbiting since July 5 of this year. The mission is intended to study the makeup and formation of Jupiter, in part to help learn more about the creation of the solar system as a whole.

Hallenbeck brought up the specific goals of the mission, giving particular focus to one method for learning more about the physical makeup of Jupiter.

While in orbit, Juno will be able to detect very slight changes in Jupiter’s gravity. Knowing where these changes occur, and the magnitude of the change, is enough information to map parts of Jupiter that are denser than others, creating a model of Jupiter in which the interior is somewhat known.

This method should help NASA learn about the core of Jupiter, as the makeup and size of the core is debated, as Hallenbeck noted.

The core could be up to 20 to 30 times the mass of earth, or nearly nonexistent. It is likely made of some combination of rock, metal, water ice and ammonia ice, though there is no consensus on the proportions. These specifcs should yield information about the age of the solar system, how Jupiter affected the earth’s formation and maybe even a better model for planetary formation itself.

Beginning later this month, Juno will enter the scientific phase of its mission and begin returning data to earth. It is scheduled to complete some 37 orbits over the next 20 months before completing its mission and descending into Jupiter’s clouds.

Professors and students discussed the ways in which the information gathered from Juno will change our perception of the solar system, and what will be learned from the first dedicated mission to Jupiter in nearly two decades.

As the scientific phase becomes more active over the coming months, the group expects Juno to be brought up again for updates.

Previous discussions at the Astronomy Discussion Group meetings include the discovery and detection of gravitational waves last winter and other noteworthy news and research in related topics.

The Astronomy discussion group meets Fridays during common lunch in Science and Engineering N303 in the Physics and Astronomy Department.

Students interested in physics and astronomy are encouraged to come.


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