Turn off CNN, Watch out for Juno

By Andrej Mrevlje |
Nasa: Jupiter Orbit Insertion. Simulation

At noon on the Fourth of July, Jim Greene, Director of Planetary Science at NASA Headquarters, was looking tense. But nevertheless, he managed to open his briefing with a cheerful voice that seemed to mimic that of Steve Jobs announcing a new product: ”What a wonderful day to celebrate; it is not only  a milestone for our country (Independence Day) but is a milestone for planetary science…”

Green was speaking about the moment, 12 hours before, when NASA’s Juno spacecraft successfully reached the end of its five-year journey and began orbiting Jupiter.

In a dimly lit room, with what seemed to be heavy blue velvet curtains preventing any ray of “Jupiter” light from penetrating the scientific chapel, an air of solemnity reigned as four apostles of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory explained the deep secrets of our universe. Aside from Green, there were Scott Bolton, Juno’s principal investigator; Rick Nybakken, Juno’s project manager; and Mission Assurance Sensor Lead Heidi Becker, the team’s radiation effects expert. The four of them were very serious, and more than nervous — they were scared about what Juno might tell them about Jupiter. Is Jupiter a failed star? Planets like Jupiter are almost indistinguishable from brown dwarfs — stars that are often called “failed” for being too small to produce energy by way of fusion. Or is Jupiter the father of our Earth in a biblical sense? A sense in which the Lord God (Sun) made Woman (Earth) from the rib he had taken out of Man (Jupiter). Will Juno send us the recipe of the solar system before it will deorbit and disintegrate in space in October 2017? Is humanity ready to know the truth?

But most importantly, will Juno survive the hostile environment and extreme radiation (20,000 times stronger than on our planet)? Will it manage to avoid the debris of clouds that spin at incredible speeds around a planet 1,000 times bigger than Earth?

For a brief moment, I remembered my youth: one Christmas Eve, some friends and I smoked some pot before going to midnight mass in Ljubljana’s main cathedral. I was trying to figure out whether the people in church were true believers, whether I would be able to “see God in their eyes.”

I can tell you that Green, Bolton, Nybakken, and Becker were there for real on July 4 — they were true believers. They were magnetic. They were elsewhere. It was like they were sitting on that probe in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, approaching outer space accompanied by Richard Strauss’s tunes. They explained to us — in simple terms — what we were not able to see, since we didn’t have their level of scientific equipment. The four scientists were awestruck as they faced eternity — as they faced the creation of our solar system’s first planet.

More than 4 billion years ago, our solar system was a cloud of dust and gas known as a solar nebula. It spun and collapsed under the force of gravity, eventually coalescing into our golden sun. What was left of the solar nebula became our solar system, with Jupiter as the sun’s first child. But we know very little about the gas giant:

We don’t know whether the planet, which is mostly made up of hydrogen and helium gas, has a rocky core at its center. We don’t know how much water is in its atmosphere, which is a crucial clue in understanding its formation. We don’t know the extent of its rocky rings, a fact that could have proved disastrous if Juno had slammed into unforeseen debris. We don’t fully understand its magnetic field, which is 20,000 times more powerful than the one that protects Earth from the sun’s rays. Most importantly, we don’t know what changed between the formation of the sun and the formation of Jupiter from what was left over, and that has critical implications for the formation of our own planet.

You could read these questions on the faces of the four NASA scientists during the hour-long briefing as Juno — a probe of the size of the basketball court — sped towards Jupiter.  

The country that sent Juno off on the 716-million-kilometer-long journey on August 5, 2011 still had a few hours to celebrate its independence that Monday evening. It was a hot day, and as usual, Americans went to their traditional Fourth of July picnics full of patriotic feelings for hot dogs and hamburgers. And when night fell, whoever was lucky enough to live in New York City watched the biggest firework display in the world,  which was choreographed to an arrangement of America the Beautiful performed by the U.S. Air Force Band. In spite of NASA’s scientific programing, which has a habit of scheduling high-stakes maneuvers to coincide with patriotic holidays, almost none of the audience members or media reporters seemed to notice NASA’s effort. People were totally ignoring what was happening almost 500 million miles from Earth — 48 minutes away by speed of light. This year, the firework organizers tried entertain the crowds by shooting off some emoji-shaped fireworks under the misty sky. But the show went on for ages, and the only impression I got from the 21st floor of an apartment in the East Village was that we were watching the never-ending bombing of Baghdad from 2003. Luckily, this was not the case.

About an hour after the monotonous fireworks stopped, the NASA operations team confirmed that Juno’s 35-minute engine burn had gone according to plan:  

…all of mission control rose to its feet. To a standing ovation, a visibly relieved Scott Bolton, the mission’s principal investigator, said, “We just did the hardest thing NASA’s ever done.”

“This was a one-shot deal,” Bolton had said earlier. Not only was Juno moving faster than any human-made object ever has when its engine fired—more than a hundred and sixty-five thousand miles per hour—but its onboard electronics were operating in what J.P.L.’s Heidi Becker described as “a spray of radiation bullets”: charged electrons spiralling up and down the lines of Jupiter’s magnetic field at almost the speed of light. It was the mission’s riskiest moment since launch.

“Everything about Jupiter is the most extreme,” Bolton said. His colleague Rick Nybakken, the project manager for Juno, agreed. “It’s the most treacherous environment in the solar system after the sun,” he said. When NASA’s previous mission to Jupiter, Galileo, arrived at the planet, in 1995, its instruments were severely disrupted and, in some cases, irreparably damaged by radiation.

Now that Juno is “safely” in Jupiter’s orbit, the NASA scientists will bite their nails till late August, when the satellite will make its next close sweep in order to peer under the giant’s clouds.

And when that happens, the first answers to many questions will start to arrive in NASA’s half-dark, isolated rooms. Unlike Juno’s approach to Jupiter — for which NASA could plan the satellite’s orbital insertion in detail and coordinate it with the Independence Day fireworks — the answers that Juno sends us (if there are any to be had) will not be coming in any sort of organized fashion. And there will be no patriotism in the answers that the scientist are nervously awaiting, as the Washington Post explains:  

“The birth of our sun used up most of the building blocks available in the gas and dust cloud that once filled our region of space. Jupiter took most of the leftovers, and Earth was formed from the leftovers of the leftovers. Something happened between the time when the sun formed and the time when Jupiter formed that allowed it to be enriched with these elements. Figuring out what exactly Jupiter is made out of and how it was built could help solve the mystery.

“It is becoming increasingly clear that the formation of Jupiter was the defining event of our solar system,” Yale University astrophysicist Gregory Laughlin, who isn’t part of the Juno mission team, told The Washington Post. “The discovery of thousands of alien solar systems over the past two decades has shown us that Jupiter, with its large mass and its relatively distant circular orbit, is somewhat unusual. We may, in fact, owe the existence of Earth’s habitability to Jupiter’s sculpting influence on the Earth’s formation, and it is imperative to peel some of the mystery from our mute, strange, and gargantuan planetary neighbor.”

Laughlin refers to the theory that Jupiter — in all its hulking glory — once bullied several planets out of the solar system. The popular hypothesis suggests that Jupiter’s incredible gravitational clout pulled another gas giant out of its orbit, leading the unstable smaller planet to tear apart or hurtle out into interstellar space. That would have made room for the rocky worlds that sit close to the sun in modern times, including Earth, and would explain why the assortment of planets in our solar system doesn’t quite fit models of solar system development.

If the above theory stands, there will be not one, but many recipes of the solar system. Research coming out of space programs like New Horizon and the James Webb telescope seems to suggest that — contrary to what individual scientists are trying to prove — even the existence of the Universe — like our own existence — might be a pure coincidence.   

Also published on Medium.

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