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Observing Jupiter both far and near

by William J. Bechaver

Depiction of the Juno probe and Jupiter. Photo from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Depiction of the Juno probe and Jupiter. Photo from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

EARTH — The Fourth of July was a day of many celebrations! Most noteworthy this year was the leap we made in space exploration as another member of the New Frontiers family made the news.

New Frontiers is the group of robotic explorers that is being disbursed into the solar system to study the other planets, both near and far, familiar and very alien.

Almost a year ago, the first member of the New Frontiers family, New Horizons, reached Pluto.

This week, the second craft of the series, dubbed Juno, went into orbit around Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system. There it will orbit, encountering the many satellites and moons of the gas giant planet, sending back data and photographs, for years to come.

Juno has already made history, being the craft to fly farther, faster, and for longer than any other using using solar power, which is provided by three large solar array panels on the spacecraft. Juno is the size of an NBA basketball court and can reach speeds of 165,000 mph.

The craft was launched five years ago on a mission to study Jupiter’s composition to answer questions about what lies at the heart of the gas giant. It has seven instruments on board to help scientists study the planet’s origins, structure, atmosphere, core, and magnetosphere. It will also take close up color images of the surface of the planet.

This is the week to enjoy the view of Jupiter from Earth as well. The moon will come within one degree of mighty Jupiter on the night of Friday, July 8. You can spot it high in the west as the sun sets. Watch it throughout the night, as the two will slowly grow closer together, to make a fine pairing as they set, just before midnight.

But this is only setting us up for a truly spectacular conjunction of the two next month, on the night of Friday August 5, but more on that when we get to it.

There are also great leaps being made by the New Horizons spacecraft, but we’ll explore them next week, when we approach the one year anniversary of it’s historic flyby of Pluto.