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JunoCam breaks com silence with its first shots of Jupiter

After parking in orbit July 5, NASA’s Juno mission is fully operational and ready to start sending us back data. The instruments have successfully passed through Jupiter’s extremely demanding magnetic environment and started powering on. JunoCam, which isn’t even part of the science payload, is already up and taking pictures. Even though the high-res photostream is yet to come, the mission staff have already made a composite of the first images from JunoCam, and they show four of the big MVPs from Jupiter: Europa, Io, Ganymede, and the Great Red Spot (above).

JunoCam was sent to capture high-resolution images of Jupiter — color images in the visible spectrum, not false-color analytical guesses. It’s getting easier to get more and better data from worlds beyond our own, and with JunoCam, NASA and the JPL mean to really advance the frontier of scientific understanding about Jupiter. During its tenure around Jupiter, Juno will make some 37 orbits, collecting data on Jupiter’s origins, structure, atmosphere, and magnetosphere. JunoCam will act as Juno’s eyes, providing a wider view of the planet and its surroundings, and helping scientists to put data from the spacecraft’s other instruments in context.

The aerial overview is the whole point of JunoCam, but it’s not the only useful thing the camera can do. At some points in its orbit, Juno will be close to the tops of Jupiter’s clouds — about 2,600 miles above them. That puts the spacecraft close enough to peer hundreds of miles deep into the obscuring cloud cover of Jupiter. It will also watch Jupiter’s poles, looking at its auroras to get a better understanding of how they work.  As Phil Valek of the Southwest Research Institute, part of the Juno project, puts it: “We’re trying to understand what’s the same and what’s different between the auroras at Earth and Jupiter so we can understand the processes that create them in detail for the first time. We’ll be really successful when we can tell the world how it really works, what particles are involved and why.”

As you might expect, though, the cloud cover is so thick that we can’t see down very far. That’s where Juno’s other instrumentation comes in. Its microwave radiometer can see right through the atmosphere, hundreds of miles down into the slush. Scientists have planned the Juno mission so that they can use the MWR to get a 3D structure of Jupiter’s atmosphere. This will give us precious data on things like the anatomy of the Great Red Spot, and how deep it extends into the planet. When it comes to Jupiter’s own structure, Juno also carries equipment for measuring electrical currents, the direction and magnitude of magnetic field lines, and even its hidden water content. Measurements like these will be important in our search to understand the history of Jupiter and our solar system; Jupiter’s origins have been a subject of much speculation, but we’ve had comparatively little hard data to back them up. Juno is set to change all that.

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