NASA celebrates spectacular ride to Jupiter
On Independence Day, NASA pulled off its hardest mission ever: inserting a 3.5 tonne probe into Jupiter’s orbit. The technology involved is astounding. Are we witnessing a new space race?
Just before 9pm on July 4th in California, NASA’s top scientists were anxiously awaiting a signal from their beloved spacecraft, Juno. The ‘armoured tank’ has spent five years hurtling towards Jupiter, travelling faster than any man-made object in history. Its electronics are wrapped in inch-thick walls of titanium, protecting it from the dangerous rocks and intense radiation found in Jupiter’s perilous atmosphere.
As Juno arrived at its destination, it was faced with the trickiest manoeuvre of NASA’s history. It had to fire its engines at just the right moment in just the right direction, and harness Jupiter’s gravity to enter its orbit at just the right angle — or risk spinning off into a far less interesting area of space.
There was silence. Then finally, a three-second beep was followed by three relieved words: ‘Welcome to Jupiter’. The scientists erupted into cheers.
‘We just did the hardest thing NASA’s ever done!’ said the jubilant project manager. And with the hard part over, Juno can start answering some crucial questions: what lies beneath the planet’s thick clouds? Does it have a solid core? What can it tell us about our own origins?
And yet Juno is just one highlight in a string of recent space stories. Last month the UK’s Tim Peake returned from the International Space Station (ISS), after completing experiments that could help NASA send people to Mars.
China has unveiled the world’s largest telescope, hoping to search for alien life. Meanwhile, British scientists have announced plans to clean up the 7,000 tonnes of space junk which has built up over more than 50 years of exploration.
Much of that junk is left over from America and the USSR during the Cold War, when the two superpowers put everything they had into their competing space programs. Reaching the moon may have been a leap for ‘mankind’... but NASA made sure that an American flag was planted in the dust.
Are we entering a new space race — this time including China?
Yes, say some. There is nothing like a competitive spirit to get technology moving and funds flowing. As new world powers emerge, it is only natural that they want to prove themselves on the intergalactic stage. In response, the USA wants to hold on to NASA’s place as the world’s leading space agency. Lucky scientists are reaping the rewards.
We are living through a new space age, but there is no ‘race’, say others. These days scientists are far more likely to collaborate than compete. Just look at the ISS: tomorrow, three astronauts from the USA, Russia and Japan will travel up there together and live in peace for four months. It is a timely reminder that when it comes to space, we are all just Earthlings.
- Are current space missions about science or politics?
- What do you hope to see next in our amazing new age of space exploration?
- Look at The Day’s slideshow under Become An Expert. Then design your own poster advertising an upcoming space mission of your choosing.
- Write two lists: one explaining the things we know about Jupiter, and one explaining the things that Juno is hoping to discover.
Some People Say...
“Competition is the root of all human progress.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Aren’t missions to space a bit of a waste of money?
- It is human nature to explore unknown worlds and question where we came from, so many would argue that the money and effort involved in space exploration is worth it for its own sake. But apart from those lofty notions, the science involved in building Juno has practical benefits here on Earth — including its pioneering solar power technology.
- How can I get involved in the mission?
- Excellent question. ‘JunoCam’ will soon begin snapping amazing pictures of Jupiter and its moons up close. These will have some scientific benefit, but their subjects have been left in the hands of the public. You can suggest points of interest for JunoCam on the mission’s forums, and eventually vote on the locations you would most like to see photographed.
- The probe was named after Jupiter’s wife in Roman mythology. Two Lego figures of the couple are on board, along with a Lego Galileo — the man who discovered Jupiter’s four largest moons.
- ‘A planet on steroids’ according to Juno’s principal investigator. Jupiter is not only our solar system’s largest planet, it also has its strongest magnetic field and its radiation is 1,000 times the lethal level for a human being.
- It travelled 165,000 miles per hour, five times faster than the New Horizons probe which reached Pluto last year.
- As the first planet to form, Jupiter holds clues to the origins of our entire solar system. That includes the formation of Earth and — eventually — life.
- The Aperture Spherical Telescope, or ‘Fast’, is 500m wide. China is also planning a new space station and a manned mission to the moon.
- Cold War
- The democratic USA and communist USSR never fought each other directly during the second half of the 20th century. But the space race was a very public way for the two countries to show off their military and technological powers.