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NASA's Juno Snaps First Picture of Jupiter

Scientists Concerned Juno Spacecraft Might Crash Into Europa

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The National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Juno spacecraft, with a mission to orbit Jupiter, has sent back its first image since entering the gas giant's atmosphere.

Photo credit: NASA

Not only does the picture provide a unique view of Jupiter, but it also proves to NASA scientists that the camera onboard Juno, JunoCam, survived entering orbit. The image was taken on July 10 about 2.7 million miles from Jupiter on the outbound leg of its 53.5-day capture orbit, NASA reported.

JunoCam will continue to capture images of Jupiter as it continues its capture orbit, with the first high-resolution images of the planet being taken on Aug. 27.

The spacecraft will orbit Jupiter 37 times over the next 20 months, powered by 18,698 individual solar cells, in order to:

  • Investigate the existence of a solid planetary core
  • Map Jupiter's magnetic and gravity fields, revealing the planet's deep structure (The video below shows Juno coming in contact with the boundary of Jupiter's magnetic field on June 24.)
  • Measure the amount of water in Jupiter's atmosphere, which will help determine which planet formation theory is correct or if new theories need to be explored
  • Measure the planet's atmosphere composition, temperature, cloud motions and other properties, such as the amount of ammonia present
  • Explore and study Jupiter's magnetosphere near the planet's poles, especially the auroras—Jupiter's northern and southern lights—which will provide insights about how the planet's enormous magnetic force field affects its atmosphere

For the next couple months, NASA scientists will perform calibrations and tests of the spacecraft's subsystems. Juno will officially begin collecting data in October.

One of the biggest concerns on scientists' minds is Jupiter's moon Europa, the Huffington Post reported.

"We know that life needs four things: it needs water; it needs an energy source (which, on Earth, is sunlight); and it needs food; the last thing it needs is a stable environment," Curt Niebur, NASA's New Frontiers program lead scientists, told the online news site. "And anywhere on Earth we look that has those four things—even if you just drill two miles straight down in rock—anywhere we look, life exists as long as those four requirements are met.

"The big question we have for Europa is how many of those ingredients are present. We know it has water. We know it's been a stable, watery environment for three billion years, just as long as Earth. We have confidence that it's got energy sources. Does it have the food, the materials that life needs? And that's what the Europa mission launching in 2022 is going to find out."

The ocean moon, which scientists believe may contain lifeforms under its frozen surface, needs to be protected from any mishaps or contamination from Juno.

"What we don't want to do is contaminate it with our own germs," Scott Bolton, Juno mission principal investigate, said. "We don't want to accidentally crash into it. The only way to assure that we wouldn't do that is to dispose of the spacecraft into [Jupiter's] atmosphere. The reasoning behind that is something called planetary protection. There's no guarantee that Juno is completely sterile."

Bolton said he might consider extending Juno's mission beyond its current 20-month plan.

But is the risk really that high? According to Niebur, yes.

"We're proceeding with an over-abundance of caution, because Juno, the spacecraft, was not cleaned when it was launched from Earth, and what we've learned is that there are life forms or spores that could survive the rigors of that crossing through space, that could possibly even survive the radiation dose that the spacecraft will get," he said.

"If just one of those bacteria or spores gets into the ocean on Europa, what would happen if it would grow, live and spread? We could possibly contaminate an entire alien ecosystem."

Niebur stressed the importance of protecting Europa.

"We don't say we want to protect it—we say we must protect this environment," he said.

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