Depending on where you stand on our tiny rock in the cosmos, things may not be looking up. Whether it’s human conflict, the migration crisis, or the environmental dilemma stemming from climate change, there’s plenty of reason to think our civilization is in jeopardy. Is the bright light that was once our future dimming? Where do we find the hope to keep us carrying on? The answer can sometimes lie deep in the void of the cosmos, where humanity’s most potent ambitions manifest themselves as extraordinary discovery, and where untouched worlds offer not only perspective, but unlimited inspiration.
Turn on the news at any point and you’ll see what’s become the usual: awry presidential politics, rampant terrorism, and the changing face of our planet in the form of an ever-growing roster of crumbling icebergs.
This week, however, something remarkable happened. A machine built by our species traversed and peered into one of the most monumental and mysterious events in the local cosmic neighborhood: a massive raging storm on our solar system’s largest world, Jupiter. That spacecraft’s name is Juno, after the Roman Goddess of Jupiter.
That storm is what we call the Great Red Spot. Its gargantuan size has intrigued humanity since the 1600s when we first aimed early telescopes at the wondrous celestial body that is Jupiter and saw signs of its existence. The massive planet’s swirling storm, rich with a red hue, is so large that it could fit the entire Earth with room to spare. The largest storms we experience on our planet span about 1,000 miles across with winds up to 200 mph. Under the clouds of the Great Red Spot, the thrashing storm spans 10,000 miles with winds blowing furiously at 400 mph. The storm has been raging for over three centuries and NASA believes it is shrinking based on continuing observations since the year 1830. The mysteries of Jupiter and its iconic red spot has inspired generations of astronomers, explorers, and artists around the world.
On August 5th, 2011, NASA launched the Juno spacecraft on a mission to pull up the curtain around Jupiter a little further. The probe was built by veteran spacecraft manufacturers Lockheed Martin and the brilliant, unmatched minds at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. These folks are no stranger to the incredible having built the robotic emissaries that currently occupy Mars, and the dual Voyager spacecraft that are reaching for Interstellar space–further than any human spacecraft before it. These achievements by the intrepid space community often get lost in the storied peaks and valleys of the human story, drowned out by the noise of our many conflicts. But missions like Juno stand among our civilization’s greatest breakthroughs.
The implications of studying Jupiter and the proverbial shadow it casts over the worlds in our solar system, are extraordinary. In order to understand the origins of Earth, we must go much further back to the time before time and try to understand how our Solar System was formed.
Part of unlocking that mystery lies within the origin of Jupiter itself. What elements form the planet? What drives its magnetic field? What is below those beautiful cloud plumes that stir the imagination?
All we have so far are theories that drive the curiosity of our humanity’s best scientists. Jupiter’s story began over 4 billion years ago when a star in our galaxy exploded. The violent cosmic event caused a neighboring cloud of rogue material to flatten and become something that resembles a vinyl record. The newly formed disc spun at high speeds with gas and dust settling in its center, forming what we know today as our Sun. Some of that leftover material collided and settled to later become the planets and the moons of those planets. The majority though, became Jupiter.
Jupiter’s pioneering observer, Juno, along with its state-of-the-art JunoCam arrived for its scientific investigation last year on July 5th. The spacecraft traveled a staggering 1.78 billion miles on its journey and was built to complete 37 orbits of the giant planet. While Juno’s ancestral machines have taken distant photos of the Jupiter’s Great Red Storm, it has the ambitious capability to fly closer than ever before. The data beamed back to us Earth-locked humans will provide unprecedented clarity on the world’s inner workings.
On July 10th 2017, during Juno’s 6th orbit and after logging over 71 million miles of travel around the planet, the spacecraft conducted a flyby of the Great Red Spot. “For generations, people from all over the world and all walks of life have marveled over the Great Red Spot,” said the Juno project’s lead investigator Scott Bolton. “Now we are finally going to see what this storm looks like up close and personal.” Juno came extraordinarily close to Jupiter’s center on July 10th at 6:55 PM and minutes later, it would glide about 5,500 miles above the famous storm and capture images with JunoCam.
“These highly-anticipated images of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot are the ‘perfect storm’ of art and science. With data from Voyager, Galileo, New Horizons, Hubble and now Juno, we have a better understanding of the composition and evolution of this iconic feature,” said NASA’s director of planetary science, Dr. Jim Green. “We are pleased to share the beauty and excitement of space science with everyone.” NASA has invited citizen-scientists around the world to process the raw images and featured their work on the agency’s website.
NASA believes that that colossal Jupiter was the first planet to take shape in our Solar System. This is the reason why understanding its formation is key to understanding how the rest of our neighboring worlds came to be and more importantly, how life came to be.
The origin of life is our civilization’s greatest mystery and the answers we are seeking cannot be understated. The ultimate question of how we came to be has driven every corner of our sciences from medicine to biology to physics, just to name a few.
One could argue that the primary force behind the exploration of our vast universe is to understand the intimate nature of not only our physical creation, but the nature of our place in this universe. For many, the question goes farther than our biological origins. Way farther. Why do we love? Why do we dream? What keeps driving us to keep looking over the hill for what’s next? These questions have led to humanity’s most incredible breakthroughs by our most ambitious seekers. Within their creations, scientists and artists alike have begun to turn these doorknobs and let the light shine on these cloaked mysteries. For a world in a state of confusion, these answers could begin to alleviate the symptoms of an existence steeped in darkness. Because of the ongoing discoveries made by our robotic explorers like Juno, humanity can begin to belong to a larger, more illuminated universe.