Israeli scientist helps Juno probe unlock Jupiter’s mysteries
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Israeli scientist helps Juno probe unlock Jupiter’s mysteries

Does the gas giant have a core? What’s it made of? How was it formed? Tel Aviv U. astrophysicist Ravit Helled may soon find out

This artist's rendering provided by NASA and JPL-Caltech shows the Juno spacecraft above the planet Jupiter. (NASA/JPL-Caltech via AP)
This artist's rendering provided by NASA and JPL-Caltech shows the Juno spacecraft above the planet Jupiter. (NASA/JPL-Caltech via AP)

When NASA’s Juno spacecraft entered Jupiter’s orbit on Monday, the nearly 2 billion-mile journey was completed in part thanks to the work of an Israeli astrophysicist.

Prof. Ravit Helled of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Geosciences enthused Wednesday over the possibilities of the mission, which will document and record more detailed information about the massive planet than ever before, she said.

“It’s really fun and exciting! It’s great to see that the public is interested, and that adds a new dimension to this research,” Helled said in a statement.

The fifth rock from the sun and the heftiest planet in the solar system, Jupiter is what’s known as a gas giant — a ball of hydrogen and helium — unlike rocky Earth and Mars.

Prof. Ravit Helled speaks at a conference in Germany in 2013. (Screen capture: YouTube)
Prof. Ravit Helled speaks at a conference in Germany in 2013. (Screen capture: YouTube)

Helled, who joined the Juno team in 2008, will focus on the structure and formation of the giant, “mysterious” planet.

“It is huge, has no solid surface, has strong winds and magnetic fields, and we don’t know exactly what it is made of,” Helled said.

“Jupiter is a very mysterious planet,” she added.

Juno, which reached the solar system’s largest planet earlier this week, will circle the gas giant some 37 times before it crashes into the planet’s surface on February 20, 2018.

The massive probe — as wide as a basketball court — will “offer insight into the planet’s origins, structure, atmosphere and magnetosphere,” according to Helled’s statement.

“I am most eager to receive information on Jupiter’s gravitational field — this can then be used to constrain its density profile, and therefore describe its composition. I want to know if Jupiter has a core, so we can better understand how giant planets form,” the professor said.

The Juno program is run by the United States’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration, but it is “very international,” with representatives from countries around the world, Helled said.

“It has been incredible to be a part of it,” she added.

After a five-year voyage, the probe reached Jupiter, prompting applause and celebrations in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory as the news beamed back from the distant planet.

Scientists have promised close-up views of the planet when Juno skims the cloud tops during the 20-month, $1.1 billion mission.

With its billowy clouds and colorful stripes, Jupiter is an extreme world that likely formed first, shortly after the sun. Unlocking its history may hold clues to understanding how Earth and the rest of the solar system developed.

Jupiter and the Galilean moons (NASA)
Jupiter and the Galilean moons (NASA)

Named after Jupiter’s cloud-piercing wife in Roman mythology, Juno is only the second mission designed to spend time at Jupiter.

Galileo, launched in 1989, circled Jupiter for nearly a decade, beaming back splendid views of the planet and its numerous moons, before it deliberately crashed into the planet. It uncovered signs of an ocean beneath the icy surface of the moon Europa, considered a top target in the search for life outside Earth.

Juno’s mission: To peer through Jupiter’s cloud-socked atmosphere and map the interior from a unique vantage point above the poles. Among the lingering questions: How much water exists? Is there a solid core? Why are Jupiter’s southern and northern lights the brightest in the solar system?

Journalists work in preparation for NASA's Juno spacecraft's orbit around Jupiter in the media center at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, California, Monday, July 4, 2016. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)
Journalists work in preparation for NASA’s Juno spacecraft’s orbit around Jupiter in the media center at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, California, Monday, July 4, 2016. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

There’s also the mystery of its Great Red Spot. Recent observations by the Hubble Space Telescope revealed the centuries-old monster storm in Jupiter’s atmosphere is shrinking.

“What Juno’s about is looking beneath that surface,” Juno chief scientist Scott Bolton said before the arrival. “We’ve got to go down and look at what’s inside, see how it’s built, how deep these features go, learn about its real secrets.”

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