TORONTO — Researchers in Canada are looking forward to new information from NASA's Juno spacecraft, set to begin orbiting Jupiter on Monday night.
Juno, launched in August 2011, will complete its journey to the solar system's largest planet after travelling more than 2.8 billion kilometres over almost five years.
Moritz Heimpel, a University of Alberta physics professor who uses 3D modelling to make simulations of planetary weather patterns, says finding out more about Jupiter is key to uncovering other unknowns about the universe. Heimpel is part of a research team that maps weather patterns on Jupiter.
"Jupiter is sort of a linchpin planet. Most of the planets that have been recently discovered that are outside the solar system are Jupiter-like, they are also gas giants," he says.
This artist's rendering provided by NASA shows the Juno spacecraft above the planet Jupiter. (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech via AP)
"Understanding how the deep interior of Jupiter works will give us an understanding of a lot of the objects in the solar system and in the universe. It's one of the ways we'll understand how things work in the universe."
Heimpel's work shows that the horizontal jetstream bands around the planet reach thousands of kilometres into planet's atmosphere, but he says others believe they may be more shallow, similar to Earth's weather patterns. Data from Juno will help show how deep into the planet they go.
He says the fact that Juno will orbit Jupter's poles, rather than circling the planet at one latitude, will let scientists gather data in a new way.
"We're really excited for Juno's arrival because it's going to be the most advanced spacecraft to monitor a giant planet," Heimpel says. "Things change a lot if you're changing latitude. Juno is going to give us a unique perspective and give us a lot more data about the deep interior."
"Jupiter is sort of a linchpin planet. Most of the planets that have been recently discovered that are outside the solar system are Jupiter-like, they are also gas giants."
Information from the $1.1 billion mission could shed light on other questions, such as whether Jupiter has a solid core. That data might also lead to a better understanding of how planets are formed.
The spacecraft will also give close-up views of the planet as it flies over the Jupiter's cloud tops every 14 days.
Juno is only the second mission designed to spend time at Jupiter. Galileo, launched in 1989, circled Jupiter for 14 years, uncovering signs of an ocean beneath the icy surface of the moon Europa.
Juno will orbit closer to Jupiter than any previous missions to map the planet's gravity and magnetic fields. To protect Juno's computer and electronics from harmful radiation, they are locked in a titanium vault.
The spacecraft will orbit Jupiter a total of 37 times, staying at the planet for nearly a year and a half before crashing down through the planet's atmosphere in 2018.