What a great month it has been for space exploration!
Juno, NASA’s cartwheeling solar-powered spacecraft investigator, has been placed into orbit around Jupiter successfully. Along with NASA’s mission control, guess who else has been keeping constant watch over the plucky space probe?
Three Lego minifigs! That’s Jupiter with his lightning bolts, his wife and the spacecraft’s namesake Juno with a magnifying glass, and Galileo with the planet in one hand and a telescope in the other. And, you’re right, they aren’t made of the usual Lego plastic but of space-grade aluminum.
Part of the Bricks in Space outreach program between NASA and the Lego Group, the three figurines were installed on the spacecraft to encourage children’s interest in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields. They were tested extensively to make sure they fit aboard Juno just like the rest of the equipment.
Now on to the Juno mission. Placing the solar-powered space probe into orbit around the king of planets wasn’t an easy task. Not considering the billion mile and more long hike to its destination, the gas giant is not a friendly place either. With radiation that can fry electronic crisp in the blink of an eye, its surroundings filled with rock and debris that can spell doom for a puny spacecraft, and immense gravitation, Juno and mission specialists at NASA had their hands full to begin with.
It was suspenseful and fraught with risk, but the mission went flawlessly (Juno arrived only a second off-schedule for its rendezvous, isn’t that incredible?). While Juno is in orbit around Jupiter, it’ll gather data that will give scientists information on whether the gas giant has a solid core and clues to how the solar system was formed.
Juno is in a highly elliptical orbit and now flung far from Jupiter. That is a planned and welcome respite for the craft and the scientists, who now prepare the instruments and correct any misalignments. Then, Juno will approach Jupiter once more and we’ll be waiting for tantalizing close-ups of the planet.
In the next 2o months Juno will orbit Jupiter 37 times. Then, like the Galileo spacecraft before it, Juno will complete its mission in 2018 by deliberately plunging into Jupiter’s atmosphere and disintegrating — a sacrifice necessary to prevent any chance of accidentally crashing into the planet’s potentially habitable moons, specifically Europa.
While we wait for pictures of Jupiter, which won’t arrive until August, NASA released a time lapse video of Juno’s approach to Jupiter. Enjoy!