Juno: Exploring a gas giant

On July 4, 2016 NASA’s New Frontier spacecraft Juno will enter into its first orbit around the planet Jupiter. Over the following twenty months Juno will complete a total of thirty-seven orbits before being deliberately crashed into the giant’s atmosphere and destroyed.

During these orbits Juno’s instruments will work to complete the work begun by the spacecraft which have preceded it over the last forty plus years.

Quoting NASA:

“Juno’s principal goal is to understand the origin and evolution of Jupiter. Underneath its dense cloud cover, Jupiter safeguards secrets to the fundamental processes and conditions that governed our solar system during its formation. As our primary example of a giant planet, Jupiter can also provide critical knowledge for understanding the planetary systems being discovered around other stars.”

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Tide swinging towards Europa’s ocean in search for life

Despite the fact that since the 1990’s Europa has been considered the most likely candidate for life in our solar system, NASA has had no formal organized effort to pursue its exploration until recently.

While President Obama’s budget for 2013 and 2014 had no provision for Europa exploration Congress appropriated $120 million for the effort.

When the President’s budget asked for $15 million in 2015, Congress appropriated $175 million.

The Europa mission is benefitting from the efforts of Congressman John Culberson, Republican-Texas, whose district happens to include the Johnson Space Center. The House Appropriations Subcommittee has jurisdiction over NASA’s budget and Culberson is its chairman.

Culberson’s efforts are not just pork barrel politics though. There is wide spread belief in the scientific community that there is strong possibility that life can be found on Europa. Europa is certainly the most promising place to look.

Consider the findings of a joint effort of a dozen government agencies engaged in space exploration and published in August 2011 in a paper titled “Science Potential from a Europa Lander”:

– The presence of water: Europa has an ocean
– Europa has a source of energy to create and maintain complex molecules: the energy source is the gravitational influence of Jupiter which causes Europa’s iron core to heat and in turn
causes significant movement in the ocean
– Europa has the basic chemical elements needed for life as they are found throughout the solar system.
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