Ep. 704: NASA’s Juno Releases New Images

NASA’s Juno spacecraft has completed dozens of flybys of Jupiter, seeing the planet from many angles and delivering some of the most beautiful images we’ve ever seen of the Jovian world. Now it’s focusing in on Io, sending home images of the tiny volcanic world from just 1,500 km away. And the best is yet to come.


(This is an automatically generated transcript)

Fraser Cain [00:01:11] Astronomy cast. Episode 704. Juno. Welcome to Astronomy Cast, our weekly fact space journey through the cosmos, where we help you understand not only what we know, but how we know what we know. I’m Fraser Cain. I’m the publisher of the Universe Today. With me, as always, is Doctor Pamela Gay, a senior scientist for the Planetary Science Institute and the director of Cosmic Quest. Hey, Pamela. How you doing? 

Pamela Gay [00:01:34] I am doing well, and we. I think I actually forgot to tell you this, because sometimes I’m a dumb ass. We’re nominated for a People’s Choice award for the Sonic Bloom Awards. 

Fraser Cain [00:01:49] Right on. How do we get people to vote early? Vote often. 

Pamela Gay [00:01:54] So if you go to astronomy Cars.com, there is a giant banner. It’s square. It’s not that giant. But it says Sonic Bloom on it. Click that and it will take you to the voting screen. Search on Astronomy Cast. They randomize the order so that you aren’t always voting for the first one or the last one, or anything like that. So search on Astronomy Cast and vote. So go to astronomy. Cars.com, click the banner box thing. It’s obvious and and vote. You can vote once per email address. 

Fraser Cain [00:02:33] And this is in no way just a pure popularity contest where podcasts drive their fan base to these things and vote purely based on the momentum of what they’re able to generate from the fans. This is this is an objective, objective award about who is the best podcast. And it’s us. 

Pamela Gay [00:02:55] It is us. It’s always us. We are always the best. That’s why I’m dropping the link into the Twitch chat to go vote. If you are watching live on YouTube, hopefully someone who’s on Twitch can also drop the link into YouTube because I don’t have that open. 

Fraser Cain [00:03:11] All right. 

Pamela Gay [00:03:13] So go vote please. I’m going to be at the awards ceremony. I’m nominated for a lifetime Achievement award for women in podcasting. And and I’d love to take home two trophies. If you have amazing people, I could bring home zero, but I’m going to Disneyworld, so it’s okay. 

Fraser Cain [00:03:31] NASA’s Juno spacecraft has completed dozens of flybys of Jupiter, seeing the planet from many angles and delivering some of the most beautiful images we’ve ever seen of the Jovian world. Now it’s focusing on io, sending home images of the tiny volcanic world just from 1500 kilometers away. And the best is yet to come. Like the images from NASA’s Juno spacecraft have redefined what Jupiter looks like in our kind of modern sense. Like if there is a like an artistic esthetic quality that Jupiter has, Juno has informed it. And it’s funny because I see this in like science fiction shows where they’re showing gas giant planets. You see images of Jupiter in, in various things, and they’re using the Juno style of, of image to, to define that. It’s it’s pretty amazing. So what is Juno? 

Pamela Gay [00:04:34] Juno is the first solar powered space probe to go to the outer solar system. And, it was placed into a polar orbit, which is the first time that we have placed a planetary explorer into a polar orbit. And it was designed to, as it goes round and round and round, map out the internal structure of Jupiter so we can understand just what’s going on in the core of this gas covered thing, where all we see is the surface as defined by gravity and meteorology. And along the way, it was also tasked with measuring the ratio of hydrogen to other elements in the atmosphere, so that we would know just how much water is locked up in the atmosphere. And there’s other stuff like measuring its magnetosphere. And none of this stuff actually requires an imager. 

Fraser Cain [00:05:37] Right? That’s a whole other story. Well, so let’s talk about some of this other stuff first, and then we’ll, we’ll get to the whole imager controversy. But but first that idea of using solar electricity at a at Jupiter. I was researching this at one point, and you need 25 times as much surface area for your solar panels at Jupiter as you do at Earth. I think it’s like four times as much at Mars and 25 times as much as Jupiter. And so really, Jupiter is the the, the last planet that will ever be visited by a solar powered spacecraft. And I guess someone’s going to make a, I don’t know, one 100 times the solar collecting. 

Pamela Gay [00:06:23] So this was made possible by the fact that there are some really amazing advances in solar power going on right now which which you’re fully aware of. You have looked at all of this stuff and the the combination of we are getting better at folding things. Strange comment. I and we’re building more and more powerful solar panels allowed them to build what at the time was the largest solar panels ever constructed. There’s three of them attached to Juno. They were able to successfully fold them up, launch them, successfully unfold them, and and get this spacecraft able to do something we probably couldn’t have done if we had to wait for, radio thermal generator to be available, because there’s just an extremely limited supply of those radioactive isotopes for use in spacecraft. 

Fraser Cain [00:07:23] Yeah. And there was a dry spell. 

Pamela Gay [00:07:26] Yeah. 

Fraser Cain [00:07:27] Where the Department of Energy wasn’t supplying NASA with the plutonium needed for these radioisotope thermoelectric generators, like what they’ve got in curiosity and perseverance and, and new horizons. And so any high power required spacecraft in the outer solar system needs one of these things. And the Juno engineers, realizing that they weren’t going to get their RTG, were able to come up with a solution that got the job done using solar electricity with solar panels. And and that is just I can just imagine the meetings that went on or was like, oh, where are we going to get the the plutonium for this? Well, what if we use solar panels, right. And that idea is now being used for the Europa Clipper as well. 

Pamela Gay [00:08:14] And and what I love is I have had apartments smaller than these solar panels. Right. 

Fraser Cain [00:08:21] I they’re big. 

Pamela Gay [00:08:22] Each. Yeah. Yeah. Each solar panel is 2.7m wide by 8.9m long. So that’s basically nine feet wide by 27ft long, roughly. Very roughly. There’s three of them, and each one yields a 168W/m² of electrical power. So it’s still like. Less power than my apartment’s used, but it’s kind of awesome. 

Fraser Cain [00:08:59] Yeah, absolutely. And so then let’s talk about the science instruments. So, like, what were the, you know, you went you listed out a whole laundry list, but like, what what are the big science questions that researchers have about Jupiter at this point in our understanding? 

Pamela Gay [00:09:14] So I have to say my my favorite science question for this mission is what is the internal structure of Jupiter? And the reason I’m so fond of this is we’ve been getting press releases along the lines of Jupiter has a fluffy core with the word fluffy was was actually used and and this the spacecraft itself is very much the instrument that was used because as it goes round and round and round, there’s an interaction between the gravitational force between Jupiter and the spacecraft, its orbit and the, rotational angular momentum, and moment of inertia of Jupiter. And and this is allowed us to determine that the core of Jupiter is significantly larger than we had previously anticipated, and Jupiter probably got smacked by something fairly significant in its history, thus having a lower density core that has been referred to as fluffy. Insert joke from the comedian you’re already thinking about here. 

Fraser Cain [00:10:27] But I think like fluffy is not a great description because it’s still under immense pressure and density and temperature. But it is less dense than you would expect from the traditional ideas of formation of a, of a giant planet like Jupiter. And so, yeah, it’s still like digesting something that crashed into it billions of years ago. 

Pamela Gay [00:10:54] Yeah. And and so, so there’s also a gravity science instrument. This one is, is looking at radio waves, just trying to figure out what are the tiny effects that can be seen in the Doppler shifting of signals between Earth and Jupiter? So essentially, as the spacecraft is going round and round, it is communicating with Earth and tiny changes in its velocity due to shiny changes in the gravitational, force from the different mass distribution inside Jupiter can get measured this way. We’ve done the same thing with the moon. It’s common to do it with the moon. I love that we did it with Jupiter. But but then we have like we are going to study Jupiter’s magnetic field. That is very core to what this mission was doing. So there is both my I’m going to say this wrong. There’s a magnetometer. 

Fraser Cain [00:12:00] Nicely done. 

Pamela Gay [00:12:02] Okay. I had to say it slowly. Yeah. And a Jovian overall distributions experiment, which is normally just called Jade, which is much easier to say. And and these these instruments are looking at how Jupiter’s magnetic field is structured, how solar particles are interacting with it and creating aurora. And this is providing us a visualization of the space weather at Jupiter, which is something we’ve talked about here at Earth. But space weather is everywhere in our solar system. And finally allowing us to get a much more detailed mapping of this massive magnetic field that we know is responsible for magnetic tauruses, for interrupting the atmospheres of some of the larger moons. And all of these things are due. In part to the amazing orbit the spacecraft ended up on. 

Fraser Cain [00:13:03] All right. Let’s talk about the camera. So the original plan was no camera? 

Pamela Gay [00:13:08] Yes. So? So this this is a low cost mission. It’s not one of the big flagships, like curiosity is or Europa Clipper is. And and so in trying to keep costs down and trying to keep things focused on point, there was no big science using visual camera images planned. There was a as Last-Minute as can be made for a spacecraft decision to just add a camera. We we have space ready cameras. 

Fraser Cain [00:13:44] They’re small and light. They’re low power. 

Pamela Gay [00:13:46] Yeah, just just do it. And and it was entirely. And education public outreach design. Session where the, the idea was, and this is in part managed by Candi Hansen. That. They were going to allow the public to process images and try and get them. Combining art and science and understanding, all the nuances of the atmosphere of Jupiter that could be understood. And oh, wow, we’ve learned from that camera. 

Fraser Cain [00:14:23] Yeah. So let’s talk about what’s in that camera, because it’s not just a straight up. 

Pamela Gay [00:14:28] Now. 

Fraser Cain [00:14:28] True color camera. It’s also dipping into the infrared. 

Pamela Gay [00:14:33] So they they so all cameras, to be fair, are going to try to go into the infrared with, with just like CCD and CMOs technology. That is is what they are sensitive to. Now where a lot of the what can the camera see decision comes in. Like if, if I point my canon camera at you, I’m not going to be able to see you glowing in the infrared. 

Fraser Cain [00:15:02] Right? 

Pamela Gay [00:15:03] But if if you remove all of the filters or in particular place a filter on that blocks all of the wavelengths of light that aren’t infrared, that allows you to start to see things. And with JunoCam there, there are a variety of different filters that allow you to look at different infrared, optical, and far further into the blue wavelengths coming from Jupiter and put together, well the brand new images that just came down that triggered us doing this show, because I was staring at the images going, oh my God, it’s so amazing. Yeah. Folks have been combining the red, green, blue and near-infrared filtered images that are just coming down of over the moon io. And we are seeing all sorts of volcanoes. Goodness. I’m a bit sad that I don’t see any active volcanism, and I’m hoping that someone looks at these in their full resolution glory and is like that. That’s that’s an active caldera. 

Fraser Cain [00:16:11] Well, that image, I mean, the classic images we got from New Horizons, we’re doing a flyby of IO, and you saw the plume of a volcano rising above the surface of, of io. But I did an interview with one of the researchers behind the images of io, and the research is being done right now. He was one of the he was going to be one of the the team behind the the mission to IO, which is, you know, was taken a backseat thanks to the Venus missions. And, you know, the the amount of detail they’ve got, the number of volcanoes to be able to count. It’s been quite something. And they’re really excited about that. And it’s doing multiple flies. It did one flyby several months ago. It did an even closer flyby just late last year. It just completed like within a couple of weeks ago, another flyby. And it’s got a one more flyby scheduled for February 2nd. And these flybys are getting closer and closer and closer. Now, they’re not as close as the flybys that we got from the Galileo spacecraft like 20 years ago. But new instrument, new capability, new orbits, that polar orbit. So you’re getting a different set of information that then allows you to add together. And you can look at those old images from from Galileo and then match the volcanoes between the old images and the new images and see how things are changing inside and so on. It’s such a dynamic world. It’s really amazing. Yeah. So we’ve got all of these amazing images from Jupiter, from Juno. And, you know, I want to go back a bit and sort of talk about that idea of citizen science, because like, how has NASA worked with the public in sort of curating these images? How does this work? 

Pamela Gay [00:17:59] So, so the data in its completely raw format is posted on the JunoCam website, where there are tutorials and information on how to download it and process it. And folks are encouraged to, color map to, adjust, enhance and enhance and change the saturation and the contrast to make things that bring their heart joy, for lack of a better way of describing it. Kevin McGill. I think I said his Kevin correctly. Yeah. It is one of my favorites to follow. Who does this? There are a whole myriad of people, on Instagram. You can go and toured their sites. And one of the cool side effects of doing this is depending on how you color map and adjust the, the the saturation and contrast, different kinds of features get drawn out. And so this is where we’re really starting to see things like the polar vortices on Jupiter, where you look at the poles of Saturn and you have this weird giant hexagonal structure. You look at the poles of Venus and you see a central vortex. Jupiter is hurricane upon hurricane, next to hurricane, beside hurricane right. And the coloration of the poles. It’s blues that I never expected from the the Voyager images that we grew up on, from the Galileo images that informed us when we were early in our career. This is colors and structures I never imagined we’d be seeing. 

Fraser Cain [00:19:52] Yeah, it’s kind of interesting. Like when you think about, say, how your digital camera works it, you see a color picture, but really it’s gathering data on the red channel, on the green channel, on the blue channel. And then it’s merging those as best it can to produce an image. And when you are doing astrophotography, you can gather images of the sky in whatever wavelengths you have available to you. And so it’s as if the Juno camera has can see four colors hit right. It sees red, blue, green and a shade of infrared. Yeah. And then whoever is doing the processing on the images can then decide what colors they want to assign to those different colors that the camera is, is doing. You can make it look super realistic just by going with exactly what it would be like if you could look at it with the human eye, but as you said, you can you can pull out those infrared features and show how they’re interacting in other colors to bring out other things. And there’s actually been some science done. Yeah. Did you want to talk about that? 

Pamela Gay [00:21:00] I’m basically just going to say polar vortex on repeat. So why don’t you lead the conversation? Yeah. 

Fraser Cain [00:21:07] So there were essentially weather patterns on Jupiter that astronomers were having a hard time tracking and understanding. And thanks to multiple images being processed by these citizen scientists, the scientists started to do these collaborations with the image processors to to track the movements of some of these cloud layers and surface features, and were able to actually produce a bunch of science papers. And so that’s sort of the sweetest part of this whole thing, was a camera that nobody originally thought should be attached to the spacecraft. They were convinced to do it for public relations and citizen science and and just helping to show off the capability of the spacecraft ended up doing science, which nobody had ever expected. And yet it’s become just an absolutely integral part of this mission. 

Pamela Gay [00:22:02] And beyond those discoveries, another one of the really cool ones is there are some straight out of Empire Strikes Back images of cloud tops, where they’re discovering that the storm clouds rise far above the average surface of the atmosphere. I don’t know the correct words to you. Sure, it’s it’s a gas giant. Yeah, but but there are what look like thunderheads rising up above the surrounding atmosphere. And we did not understand just how high up those clouds were rising. And it’s cool. 

Fraser Cain [00:22:48] When people think the great red spot is is a sunk in depression. In fact, I remember there was like, yeah, or illustrations of a spacecraft passing above Jupiter’s Great Red spot, meaning cosmos anyway, in the new cosmos, I think. But in fact, it’s a it’s a bump up. So it’s the, it’s the inverse that in fact, the great Red spot is, is like a is like a bump on top of Jupiter, not a hole in Jupiter, like a vortex that falls in, now, what are the plans? I mean, Juno has completed. I don’t know where that 54 flyby. 

Pamela Gay [00:23:23] I believe they’re at 5757. 

Fraser Cain [00:23:25] Flybys. Yeah. So, yeah. What are the future plans for Juno at this point? 

Pamela Gay [00:23:30] So, so as as we’ve hinted that, Juno is on a super weird orbit, it actually had some problems with, its orbital maneuvering engines. So it originally entered into this extremely elliptical orbit where when it’s furthest from Jupiter, it can basically see the whole planet, and then it zooms in super close to the surface. And, it’s going over the poles as it does this, as the orbit rotates, it’s getting the chance to do flybys of the different moons. Eventually they’re going to realize they can’t keep extending the mission. And because we do not want to blight, any of Jupiter’s moons with our human germs, it’s eventually going to have the same fate the Galileo faced, and it’s just going to get plunged into the atmosphere. 

Fraser Cain [00:24:21] I want to see those pictures. Yeah, yeah, I mean, that that flyby, as you mentioned earlier on, like, because Jupiter’s magnetosphere has trapped so much radiation, it’s really dangerous for spacecraft to be close to Jupiter. And so this elliptical orbit allows it to catch his breath, be far away from Jupiter, and then plunge in, take a bunch of pictures, gather some science data, and then fly back out. Yeah, send the data home, rest and then do the flyby again. But now, with its missions, now we’re in the I know the YOLO portion of this mission. And so now they’re sending it really close to Jupiter to go past io, which is the most radiation struck of the large moons of Jupiter. And so it’s going to receive more damage in this region. And hopefully we’ll get to a point, as you said, continue to extend like it’s already had multiple mission extensions. Yeah. So so next comes it’s whatever will be its final mission extension, including a directed plunge into the atmosphere. 

Pamela Gay [00:25:23] And and its orbit actually changes the language that we use with Cassini. We talked about orbit number blah, orbit number, blah. We’re due now we talk about perigee of numbers because it’s the time that it has gotten closest to Jupiter. And and I just love the fact that they changed the language and acknowledgment of just how different this orbit and this mission’s exploration is structured. And I particularly love the fact that they get to alternate between close to full disk. Tiny, tiny details. Yeah, the we’ve talked about it before. We generally don’t get to see the full disk images of these worlds. Yeah. 

Fraser Cain [00:26:09] It’s awesome. And this and this is the blueprint for other missions that are going to Jupiter. The Europa Clipper is going to follow a similar trajectory. It is exploring Europa, but on these really long elliptical orbits. And then of course, the, the juice mission, it’s going to be doing something similar. So, so you can see that this is the technique. And in fact, the Parker Solar Probe is doing the same thing to visit the sun. It does. This gigantic flyby gets really close, gathers much image, heats up, and then and then gets away from the sun again and cools down and catches its breath. And and, you know, questions its life choices and then falls back into the sun goes 650,000km/h, screaming past the sun and then flies back out again. And, but it’s it’s really clever because you’re always trying to balance, like, you want a way to have your spacecraft be in the danger zone where the good science is happening, and yet you want your spacecraft to last as long as possible. And Juno nailed it. 

Pamela Gay [00:27:14] It’s it’s a great mission. We hope that it live as long and has the same experience of Cassini as they just keep using it, and they’re worried they won’t be able to maneuver it. I love it. It’s awesome. All right, go check out Juno Cam’s website, folks. 

Fraser Cain [00:27:29] Yeah, and there’s plenty of people there to explain to you how to process the images yourself. So if you want to be part of that team, everyone’s welcome. 

Pamela Gay [00:27:38] Yeah. 

Fraser Cain [00:27:39] All right. Thanks very much. 

Pamela Gay [00:27:40] Thank you. And thank you so much to all of our patrons on Patreon. Wearing my Patreon hoodie over here. You guys are what allow us to do this show and know that we’re going to get edited to sound better than it sound on our own. This week I would like to thank. And it’s awesome seeing new names. I’m so sorry about what I’m about to do to the pronunciation of your names. This week I would like to thank Thomas Ghazali. Tushar McKinney, Jarvis Earl, Jeff Collins, Hal McKinney, all honest Jim, Sarah lark, Bruno Letts, Jimmy Berger. Bergeron. Jean-Baptiste. La martini, Cody. Rose, will. Hamilton, Sterling. Gray, Adam. Sam. Tor. Fossen, Mark. Schindler. Michael Prachanda, Galactic president superstar, scoops a lot. Thank you, I like it. Astro Bob. John. They is Jordan Young boogieing that, Steven white, Jeanette wenk, Bora Andre level, Sergei Kemmler, Andrew plasterer, David trobe, Brian kegel, ed David. Gerald Schweitzer, buzz parsec, zero. Chill, Laura. Kettle sen and Robert Plasma. Thank you all so much. I enjoy the challenges. Keep them coming. 

Fraser Cain [00:29:11] Thanks, everyone. We’ll see you this week. 

Pamela Gay [00:29:13] Buh bye. Astronomy cast is a joint product of the Universe Today and the Planetary Science Institute. Astronomy cast is released under a Creative Commons Attribution license. So love it, share it, and remix it, but please credit it to our hosts, Fraser Cain and Doctor Pamela Gay. You can get more information on today’s show topic on our website. Astronomy. Cars.com. This episode was brought to you. Thanks to our generous patrons on Patreon. If you want to help keep the show going, please consider joining our community at Patreon.com Slash Astronomy Cast. Not only do you help us pay our producers a fair wage, you will also get special access to content right in your inbox and invites to online events. We are so grateful to all of you who have joined our Patreon community already. Anyways, keep looking up. This has been Astronomy Cast. 

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