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Scientist with area ties to study Jupiter up close and personal

June 9th, 2011 under Top Stories

By EMILY JO CURETON

MARFA – A planetary scientist with Marfa ties is headed to Jupiter this August. Well, in spirit anyway.

Dr. Bill Hubbard, a professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson who owns property south of town, will be studying the results of NASA’s latest mission to the gaseous giant planet. His task is to interpret data sent by radio transmission from approximately 400,000,000 miles away and hopefully, discover something new about the origin of the solar system.

The Juno mission launches from Cape Canaveral this August, but it will be five years in transit before the spacecraft begins orbiting Jupiter, hovering thousands of kilometers above the tempestuous surface and collecting data about the planet’s atmosphere and core make-up.

According to Juno project scientist Steve Levin, Juno will be in touch with ground control at least once a week during the long trek to the outer solar system.

“There will be times when we communicate with the spacecraft nearly continuously, but for much of the quieter part of its cruise to Jupiter Juno will contact the Earth about once per week.  If the spacecraft doesn’t hear from the Earth for more than about 2 weeks, it is programmed to shut down non-essential activities, orient itself to point the antenna at the Earth, and phone home,” Levin said.

Dr. Bill Hubbard of the University of Arizona

Using a spinning, partly solar-powered spacecraft, Juno will make maps of the gravity, magnetic fields, and atmospheric composition, carrying precise high-sensitivity radiometers, magnetometers, and gravity science systems.

In addition, Juno carries one instrument called a Junocam, “whose primary mission is education and outreach, not science. Junocam will take the first high-quality visible-light pictures of Jupiter’s poles.  Students and the public will be involved in the selection of which pictures to take and will also be involved in processing the data to produce the images,” said Levin.

NASA reports this is the first time in history a spacecraft has used solar power so far out in space (Jupiter is five times farther from the sun than Earth). To operate on the sun’s light at that distance requires solar panels about the size of an 18-wheeler. Even with all that surface area pointed sunward, the three panels installed on Juno will only generate enough juice to power five standard light bulbs, about 450 watts of electricity. On Earth, they would produce 12 to 14 kilowatts of power.

Scientists hope the data collected by Juno will reveal more about the origin and evolution of our solar system. Dr. Hubbard’s research focuses on the determination of the metallicity of Jupiter and validation of a cooling theory about giant planets.

As he explains it, “The temperatures in the planetary cores of gas giants depends on how old they are,” and Jupiter is both contracting and cooling over time.

Dr. Hubbard has been working on giant planet theory since the 1960s. He’s seen the science change from a purely theoretical field to one supported by direct observation.

“At that time we didn’t even know the exact size of Jupiter, now we know the size to within a kilometer,” he said.

The Juno project cost about $1.1 billion total, consisting approximately of $581 million spacecraft development and science instruments; $184 million launch services; $342 million mission operations, science processing and relay support for 6 years.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, CA manages the Juno mission for the principal investigator, Scott Bolton, of Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. The Juno mission is part of the New Frontiers Program managed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL. Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver, built the spacecraft. Launch management for the mission is the responsibility of NASA’s Launch Services Program at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

An illustration of the JUNO spacecraft. (courtesy of NASA/JPL)

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