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Juno Spacecraft Is Rewriting What We Know About Jupiter

NASA | Southwest Research | JPL
This image of a crescent Jupiter and the iconic Great Red Spot was created by a citizen scientist (Roman Tkachenko) using data from Juno's JunoCam instrument.

This is what Jupiter sounds like.

These creepy noises are radio waves detected by the Juno spacecraft in August. While these screeching sounds shock the ears, what NASA is discovering from the spacecraft about Jupiter is Earth shattering.

"Or Jupiter shattering, I should say," says Scott Bolton, principal investigator for the Juno Mission and associate vice president of Research and Development for the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.

He says Juno's launch five years ago launched a renewed interest in the giant planet with theories on what they would find when the spacecraft settled into orbit last July 4th. 

I mean, every way we have looked, we have been shocked by what we've seen. - Scott Bolton

"Maybe they'll see this? Maybe Juno will see that, but none of them have been as out of the box as what we are seeing," says Bolton

For instance, Bolton points to Jupiter's core. Many models predicted a rocky core of heavy elements about the mass of Earth, but after a couple of orbits it became clear the core was not what they thought.

"We don't see anything that looks like a core. There may be a core of heavy elements in there, but it might not be all concentrated in the middle. So that was the first picture that started to go out the window. And we started to say, you know, what would the core be like? Maybe it's much larger? Maybe it's half the size of Jupiter? How could that be?" Bolton asks.

The spacecraft is also studying the magnetosphere, which creates Jupiter's massive aurora's that are bigger than the plant Earth. The protective layer is stronger than anyone had anticipated.

Finally, when they looked at Jupiter's atmosphere with their specially made microwave radiometer, they were again surprised.

"And the very first look told us that there were deep motions that were going on much deeper than we expected. The atmosphere and winds and convection is going on in there, and the ammonia is distributed differently than people thought. And the equator seemed to have an upwelling of ammonia-like stuff. We just aren't sure what's really going on."

With discoveries around the planet's core, its magnetosphere, and its composition, truly Juno is revolutionizing our knowledge of the gas giant.

"The whole thing looks different than what anyone thought. I mean every way we have looked, we have been shocked by what what we've seen," says Bolton.

But the importance of Jupiter is bigger than just Jupiter. It was the first planet formed, say scientists, and it takes up most of the mass in the solar system after the sun. For these reasons, scientists used it as a model for other solar systems and their giant planets.
"And that is a really big deal. We don't know much about giant planets is what we realized. And if they're built differently than we think, then it means maybe we don't understand how solar systems are made up in the first place," Bolton explains.

Credit NASA | JPL
Juno Spacecraft was built by Lockheed Martin. It's solar arrays are 8' long and its electronics are encased in titanium.

NASA announced that due to complications from an engine malfunction, Juno will remain in a longer 53-day orbit, rather than accelerating to a two week orbit that would have put it tighter against the planet. The longer orbit means that the scheduled 30+ orbits will take much longer to complete.

Bolton says that -- serendipitously -- it's a good thing because now in a larger orbit they get more real estate to investigate. But their findings coupled with an orbit that could  double the mission data collection time is being received, "With great excitement but impatience," says Bolton.

"Everybody is like, 'OK, OK, tell us what the answer is. Give us more. Give us more,' and of course now we are saying we're going to get your  more, but it is going to take a little longer."

Taking more time is fine with Bolton. He says when your data is throwing what you know to the wind you should probably slow down and try to figure out if you're the one who is actually wrong.

Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org