NASA's Juno spacecraft will place planetary exploration in the hands of the public
In July 2016, Jupiter will welcome NASA's Juno spacecraft, which will boast the dual purpose of unlocking many of the secrets of the enigmatic gas giant, and serving as a tool to bridge the gap between space exploration and the masses. The latter will be achieved with JunoCam, an onboard imaging instrument that will call on the public to serve as a virtual imaging team.
JunoCam represents a rare beast in the space exploration sphere. Unlike the vast majority of instruments currently traversing the solar system aboard NASA spacecraft, JunoCam was not designed to fulfil a specific scientific goal, but is instead designed from the outset with the sole purpose of working as a public outreach tool.
Images of Jupiter and its distinctive cloud formations have become a symbol of the beauty and complexity of our solar system. Yet, paradoxically, the best images taken of the gas giant were snapped by the now venerated Voyager spacecraft all the way back in 1972.
Juno aims to right this wrong, imaging the planet in the highest resolution ever, while asking the public to make the decision on which regions of the gas giant the camera will target via a simple voting system that will be accessible on the mission website.
Furthermore, the web platform will offer a forum for discussion and a feature that will allow amateur astronomers to upload their own images to share with others. Alongside tasking the camera, the public will also have the responsibility of processing the data from the instrument to create color images which would then be uploaded and shared.
Unlike the majority of imaging devices designed for planetary exploration which have to orientate themselves to their target and maintain a static position, the JunoCam has been created to capture Jupiter while the spacecraft spins, rotating twice every minute.
In order to correct for the motion, JunoCam is designed to capture several lines of pixels at a time at short intervals that should mitigate any image smear, and present each image as a panorama. The camera system was tested during a flyby of Earth in October 2013, at which point the team captured the instrument's first high resolution images of our planet and the Moon.
The views of Jupiter captured by JunoCam will be a vast improvement on those taken by the Voyager missions, the cameras of which boasted a relatively narrow field of view. Juno will also get closer to the planet's cloud layer than any other mission.
The closest approach will see the spacecraft pass within 3,100 miles (5,000 km) of Jupiter's surface, affording an incredible opportunity for high-resolution images of the gas giant's transfixing cloud formations, and providing the first detailed views of the planet's polar regions.
On a broader scale, the images returned by JunoCam over the course of its operational life will undoubtedly serve as a powerful tool in bridging the gap between space exploration and the masses.