NASA to Send Snarky High-School Girl to Jupiter

Okay, not really, but I couldn’t resist.

In reality, the agency has approved a new spacecraft dubbed Juno that will launch in 2011, making it into an elliptical polar orbit around Jupiter by 2016.

The mission isn’t named for the teenage darling of independent film, but for the Roman goddess who was the jealous sister-wife of the god Jupiter [and also the namesake of the movie character—are those orange and white stripes a planetary homage?].

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Striking resemblance?

According to myth, Jupiter was fond of stepping out on his woman, and at some point became particularly attracted to a priestess named Io.

To conceal his tryst, the lusty god spread a veil of clouds over Io, but jealous Juno was not fooled, and she used her goddess vision to penetrate the haze and catch the pair in flagrante delicto.

Along those lines, the Juno spacecraft is designed to peer through the gas giant’s murky and tumultuous clouds to study the true nature of the planet, down to its deepest, darkest recesses.

Some of the mission goals are to:

  • better understand how the gas giants formed and how close their composition is to the original solar system materials;
  • find out if Jupiter has a rock-ice core, and if so, how big it is;
  • find out how deep the famous Great Red Spot and its companion storms go into the atmosphere;
  • figure out how Jupiter’s dynamo works to create the planet’s strong magnetic field, thus revealing more about its spectacular hyper-auroras.

Juno will be the second craft to set up shop around Jupiter, succeeding the Galileo mission that launched in 1989 and orbited the planet from 1995 to 2003.

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One of the more exciting innovations on Juno is its power source—it will be the first solar-powered craft sent to the outer solar system, using three large, hinged panels to collect sunlight continuously during the year-long mission.

At up to $700 million in operating costs, Juno’s approval might make it seem like NASA didn’t get the memo about a global recession.

Still, it appears the agency was thinking about cost savings even back in 2005, when the mission was first proposed.

—Image courtesy NASA

Juno is “very simple as planetary missions go, so we can keep the cost down,” Bill Gibson of the Southwest Research Institute told Astronomy magazine in a December 15 interview.

“Juno uses conventional propulsion,” Gibson added. “And we’ve limited our study to Jupiter. It’s a plenty big target!”

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