NASA's Juno spacecraft will place planetary exploration in the hands of the public
In July 2016, Jupiterwill welcome NASA's Juno spacecraft, which will boast the dualpurpose of unlocking many of the secrets of the enigmatic gas giant,and serving as a tool to bridge the gap between space exploration andthe masses. The latter will be achieved with JunoCam, an onboardimaging instrument that will call on the public to serve as a virtualimaging team.
JunoCam represents arare beast in the space exploration sphere. Unlike the vast majorityof instruments currently traversing the solar system aboard NASAspacecraft, JunoCam was not designed to fulfil a specific scientificgoal, but is instead designed from the outset with the sole purposeof working as a public outreach tool.
Images of Jupiter andits distinctive cloud formations have become a symbol of the beautyand complexity of our solar system. Yet, paradoxically, the bestimages taken of the gas giant were snapped by the now veneratedVoyager spacecraft all the way back in 1972.
Juno aims to right thiswrong, imaging the planet in the highest resolution ever, whileasking the public to make the decision on which regions of the gasgiant the camera will target via a simple voting system that will be accessible onthe mission website.
Furthermore, the webplatform will offer a forum for discussion and a feature that willallow amateur astronomers to upload their own images to share withothers. Alongside tasking the camera, the public will also have theresponsibility of processing the data from the instrument to createcolor images which would then be uploaded and shared.
Unlike the majority ofimaging devices designed for planetary exploration which have toorientate themselves to their target and maintain a static position,the JunoCam has been created to capture Jupiter while the spacecraftspins, rotating twice every minute.
In order to correct forthe motion, JunoCam is designed to capture several lines of pixels ata time at short intervals that should mitigate any image smear, andpresent each image as a panorama. The camera system was testedduring a flyby of Earth in October 2013, at which point theteam captured the instrument's first high resolution images of ourplanet and the Moon.
The views of Jupitercaptured by JunoCam will be a vast improvement on those taken by theVoyager missions, the cameras of which boasted a relatively narrowfield of view. Juno will also get closer to the planet's cloud layerthan any other mission.
The closest approach willsee the spacecraft pass within 3,100 miles (5,000 km) of Jupiter'ssurface, affording an incredible opportunity for high-resolutionimages of the gas giant's transfixing cloud formations, and providingthe first detailed views of the planet's polar regions.
On a broader scale, theimages returned by JunoCam over the course of its operational lifewill undoubtedly serve as a powerful tool in bridging the gap betweenspace exploration and the masses.