University of Iowa scientists say "hi" to Juno spacecraft

Scientists, amateur ham radio club enlist thousands for effort

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University of Iowa scientists, students, ham radio buffs, and space enthusiasts teamed up Wednesday to give the equivalent of a slow-motion “hello” to NASA’s Juno spacecraft.

The opportunity to coordinate a rare greeting of sorts came between 1 and 4 p.m. Wednesday as Juno orbited our planet in a slingshot maneuver, passing within 350 miles of the Earth’s surface on its way to Jupiter.

“Few people have the chance to interact with a planetary space craft,” said Donald Kirchner, principal engineer for the UI’s Juno Waves instrument project.

Juno began its five-year journey to Jupiter in August 2011, and its real mission will begin once it arrives in July 2016. One of nine Juno experiments involves a UI-designed and constructed radio and plasma wave instrument that will examine Jupiter’s polar magnetosphere and its auroras.

The spacecraft has spent the past two years moving out beyond the orbit of Mars before swinging past the Earth on its way to Jupiter, making Wednesday’s close encounter possible.

Wednesday’s communication used Morse code to transmit the letters “H” and “I” to the spacecraft as it passed. UI scientists, with the help of the UI Amateur Radio Club, coordinated the communication with thousands of other space and ham radio aficionados around the globe.

“We are trying to get everyone to transmit at the same time so the space craft will see a series of dots,” Kirchner said.

That’s four dots for the “H” and two dots for the “I.” Kirchner used a web page with directions of when to send a signal to help coordinate the greeting.  He will be able to tell within a day or so whether the message got through.

Tony Rogers, president of the UI Amateur Radio Club, said his group jumped at the chance to work on this project, contacting more than 350 ham radio stations in 18 countries and 40 states to drum up participation.

“I got promises from hundreds, and anecdotally I think thousands more are helping out,” Rogers said.

Wednesday’s pseudo space rendezvous was mostly for fun. But officials say Juno’s mission is quite significant.

“Jupiter has the largest and most energetic magnetosphere,” Bill Kurth, UI research scientist and lead investigator for the Juno instrument, said in a news release. “To finally get an opportunity to study the nature of its auroras and the role radio and plasma waves play in their generation makes Juno a really exciting mission for me."

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