September 1, 2016
As Juno flies closely around Jupiter and takes its first snapshots of the gas giant, UT astronomers hope that the NASA probe will give new insights about both our solar system and planets around other stars.
NASA’s Juno mission is a solar-powered probe that is orbiting Jupiter in extremely elliptical orbits. On Saturday, Juno completed its first — and closest — of 36 flybys across the planet with its instruments online and collecting data. The data Juno collected on this flyby won’t be available for a while, but UT astronomers are interested to see what information Juno retrieves about the planet.
“I think astronomers generally are pretty excited by new things like this, and [the Juno mission] tries to answer some of the big questions that we all ask,” astronomy assistant professor Michael Boylan-Kolchin said. “It’s always nice to see people being excited about things in space and trying to understand what’s going on out there.”
One of Juno’s primary missions is to learn about how Jupiter was formed and how the planet’s core is structured. According to astronomy assistant professor Adam Kraus, if Juno finds a solid core in Jupiter’s center, then it likely began as a large rocky planet that gathered gas after forming instead of just starting out as a dense cloud of gas. This information could affect how astronomers think the solar system was made.
“Hopefully it will give us some handle on the formation process that creates planets like Jupiter,” Kraus said. “If it’s a generalizable result that applies to all gas giant planets like this, it will help to sort out some ongoing controversies in the field as to how you make a gas giant planet.”
Kraus studies exoplanets, or planets that orbit stars other than the sun. He said that learning more about Jupiter and the solar system’s formation is important to understanding how exoplanets form. This is because Jupiter is closer and can be observed directly.
“It’s so much easier to get into the details of Jupiter compared to other planets, where we infer there’s a planet there but we never actually see the planet,” Kraus said. “We’re at the point now where we can actually start to see these planets as they’re forming. But it’s still just a really bright star and one faint smudge.”
Physics junior and Astronomy Students Association co-president Yaswant Devarakonda hopes that as more data comes in and is interpreted by scientists, people will become more interested in what Juno is finding out about Jupiter.
“The public’s interest in science and space comes and goes,” he said. “As we get further results and we actually do science and we see all the data and scientists release what they found, hopefully then people will be more interested.”
Boylan-Kolchin, who teaches an introductory astronomy class for non-science majors, said Juno should answer a lot of questions that the general public has about Jupiter and the solar system.
“The probe is really trying to figure out where our solar system came from,” he said. “I think it shows that there’s a lot of excitement in general about these kinds of things, and NASA still has the ability to connect to things that everybody thinks about and can be excited about.”