Higher education

Juno, and its University of Iowa-built instrument, about to reach Jupiter

After 5-year journey, Juno to arrive on Fourth of July

University of Iowa research scientist Bill Kurth is shown with an instrument devised by a UI team that became one of those on board the NASA spacecraft Juno. The craft, launched nearly five years ago, is set to enter Jupiter’s orbit on the Fourth of July. (Photo from the University of Iowa)
University of Iowa research scientist Bill Kurth is shown with an instrument devised by a UI team that became one of those on board the NASA spacecraft Juno. The craft, launched nearly five years ago, is set to enter Jupiter’s orbit on the Fourth of July. (Photo from the University of Iowa)

IOWA CITY — As Iowans on the Fourth of July direct their gaze skyward, University of Iowa researcher Bill Kurth will be concentrating on the heavens for a different reason.

“When you’re watching the fireworks displays, Juno will be celebrating its own fireworks by firing its engine,” said Kurth, UI scientist and co-investigator for a radio and plasma wave experiment aboard the NASA-led Juno mission to Jupiter.

After a nearly five-year journey, Juno is set to make its grand entrance into the gas giant’s polar orbit at 10:18 p.m. Monday central time. The spacecraft’s main engines will burn for 35 minutes until it’s safely in orbit, which is expected to occur at 10:53 p.m., Kurth said.

Once in orbit, Juno — equipped with nine instruments, including one built by UI scientists — will make 37 laps around the solar system’s largest planet, at times sidling up to within 2,600 miles of Jupiter’s cloud tops.

Scientists hope to probe beneath the planet’s cloud cover and study its auroras to learn more about its origins, structure, atmosphere and magnetosphere, according to NASA, which funded the $1.13 billion mission.

“Juno will tell us how the planets in our solar system were developed and evolved,” Kurth said Monday.

When Juno enters orbit, Kurth will be keeping tabs on it from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

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“Space is a very unforgiving environment,” he said. “You do all you can to make sure you’ve anticipated everything that you know about … So I’m confident everything will work fine. But it’s always better on the other side, when you’re in orbit.”

Jupiter, the fifth planet from the sun and 2 1/2 times bigger than the other planets combined, contains 70 percent of the solar system’s mass, not counting the sun.

“It’s the king of the planets and was probably formed first,” Kurth said. “We need to understand its formation and evolution before we can worry about smaller planets, including Earth.”

Juno launched Aug. 5, 2011, and will travel 1,740 million miles to reach Jupiter’s orbit, NASA said.

The cost covers 78 months of spacecraft development, science instruments, launch services, mission operations, science data processing and relay support — including UI work on the Juno “waves” instrument.

The UI instrument onboard includes a V-shaped antenna — similar to television “rabbit ears” — that stretches to 9 feet and is capable of detecting the electronic component of radio and plasma waves. A smaller antenna was designed to measure the magnetic component of waves. Together, the antennae could help scientists better understand the interactions between Jupiter’s magnetic field and atmosphere.

“It’s really broadening our horizons and helping us understand the universe better than we do now,” Kurth said.

For Kurth, the Jupiter arrival is a long time coming.

“We are just sitting on pins and needles and really looking forward to seeing data from the brightest auroras in the solar system,” he said. Although Juno won’t be the first spacecraft to explore Jupiter’s atmosphere, it will be the first mission to orbit an outer-planet from pole to pole, and will fly faster and closer to Jupiter than any before it. It also will take the highest-resolution images of Jupiter in history.

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“It will go right through the region above the auroras where all the excitement is,” Kurth said, referencing the light events caused by charged particles that collide with a planet’s atmosphere.

On Earth, the sun produces particles that cause auroras, also known as the northern and southern lights. Jupiter’s auroras are 1,000 times brighter than Earth’s, Kurth said, and the instrument he helped develop will investigate why and how.

“There has been a lot of effort to study the auroras on Earth — we’ve sent spacecraft through the auroral region and developed an understanding of how that works,” Kurth said. “But Jupiter is a different lab for studying those.”

Because its auroras are so much more intense, they could confirm previous information about Earth’s auroras or uncover new science, Kurth said.

In recent weeks, as Juno approached Jupiter, it began to transmit and receive data from Earth around the clock and opened a protective cover to shield Juno’s engine from micrometeorites and interstellar dust, NASA said.

All instrumentation not specifically geared toward inserting Juno in orbit will turn off Wednesday. All of Juno’s instruments will be turned back on two days after achieving orbit, NASA said.

Then, Kurth said, he’ll wait eagerly for Aug. 26 — the first time Juno will pass Jupiter at its closest with scientific instruments running.

“That will be the first taste of what we hope will be a long series of orbits that will provide us information from the instruments from Iowa on radio and plasma waves,” he said. Researchers plan to end the mission Feb. 20, 2018, by disposing of the craft in Jupiter’s atmosphere. That, Kurth said, is to avoid a possible collision with Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons.

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Because scientists believe Europa has an ocean of liquid water, they have visions of searching it for signs of life. If Juno crashed into it — potentially depositing microbes — and researchers later found life there, they wouldn’t know whether the life originated on its own or because of Juno’s influence.

“International rules exist to make sure we don’t contaminate the solar system,” he said.

Throughout the mission, a small UI-based operations team will be tracking data from Juno, along with a large team at NASA’s Pasadena-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Kurth said he and his colleagues will help interpret the information and then translate and disseminate it to the public.

“We will be very excited to see the data,” he said.

hen Juno actually enters orbit Monday, Kurth will be keeping tabs on it from the propulsion lab in California.

“There are always nerves,” he said. “Space is a very unforgiving environment. You do all you can to make sure you’ve anticipated everything that you know about … So I’m confident everything will work fine. But it’s always better on the other side, when you’re in orbit.”

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