Made from Star Dust?

-Mohiitaa Chawdhry



BEAUTIFUL! Isn’t it? What do you think it is? A gem, an abstract art or just your imagination 😛 ?  Well, it is none of them, it’s the south pole of the biggest planet of our solar system – Jupiter. This dazzling picture has been captured by NASA’s Juno Spacecraft. The beautiful blue crystals you see in there, are earth-sized cyclones which have lived for over a thousand years now!

This beautiful planet might not be a gem, but it can surely turn the future of hundreds of theories on the formation and evolution of the solar system that have surfaced over years.

But what’s so amazing about this planet and why are scientists so keen in finding about it? Let’s find out!

According to prevalent theories, a star collapsed and the nearby cloud and dust flattened into a spinning disk. Most of the gas collected into a hot dense core, called the Sun. The remaining debris formed other planets and other small bodies in the solar system. Majority of this debris made our star-planet Jupiter. WAIT! I just called it a “star-planet!” The reason is that it is actually composed like a star but it did not grow enough to ignite nuclear fusion at its core that makes the star shine.

Scientists believe that Jupiter was formed first among all the planets and it is as old as our Sun! So, understanding the formation of Jupiter is important for understanding the formation of solar system, our home- the earth and the early life on our planet.

But I just told how it all happened? Then why the effort? Well, there are many theories doing the rounds and having entirely different views. Some feel Jupiter has a solid core within, while others see it as a turbulent gaseous planet with cyclones and dust all around. There has to be some concrete evidence to establish the correctness of the existing theories or emergence of a whole new theory altogether. And that brings us to the spacecraft that has been orbiting around Jupiter for nearly a year now – NASA’s very own Juno.

Juno, which was launched by NASA on Aug 5th, 2011 entered Jupiter’s orbit on July 4th, 2016. Data collected by the spacecraft shows that Jupiter is very turbulent, has huge earth-sized storms and a powerful magnetic field that is fourteen times the magnetic field of Earth. It is believed that the orbits were shaped the way they are by the mammoth magnetic field of Jupiter. Due to its turbulent surface conditions, if at all there exists a surface, it’s difficult to get a spacecraft land on the planet. So, how is Juno giving us the data?

Juno is designed to measure the gravitational and magnetic field of the planet and tell whether a core exists by remote sensing. The images sent by Juno have some interesting findings which have puzzled the scientists too. The fact that Jupiter’s North Pole is not the same as the South Pole can be a major breakthrough. Scientists are also interested in finding out how stable the dense clustered cyclones on the South Pole are? Have they been living there from the very beginning? Or is it just a phase?

Juno’s Microwave Radiometer data indicates that Jupiter belts are different in configuration near the equator and at other latitudes. Belts near the equator seem to be penetrating down while the other belts seem to evolve as different structures altogether.

Juno is also designed to study the uneven magnetic distribution around the planet and also the existence of polar lightings – the auroras at the southern and northern hemisphere.

Juno is in a polar orbit around Jupiter, and the majority of each orbit is spent well away from the gas giant. But, once every 53 days, its trajectory approaches Jupiter from above its north pole, where it begins a two-hour transit (from pole to pole) flying north to south with its eight science instruments collecting data and its JunoCam public outreach camera snapping pictures. The download of six megabytes of data collected during the transit can take 1.5 days.(Ahh! That is a lot of information all of a sudden. :P)

So, that was what has already happened. What’s next in store for us? Well, there is a big time coming! In its major flyby on July 17th, 2017, Juno will be flying over the “Great Red Spot”. Well, if you don’t know what that is, here’s an interesting GIF borrowed from Wikipedia. Just go ahead and explore!

Want to know where Juno is now? Here is a link for you! ( Caution : Free some Phone storage :P)

With Juno entering into the mysteries of the star-planet, there’s a hope that we can trace the roots of life and also explore the hidden secrets of the solar system. Will life be possible elsewhere? Or Earth is the only home for us? Are we really made of star-dust? The questions are yet to be answered…

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