High Flying Research at Leicester - 1.7 billion miles away!

Posted by pt91 at Sep 30, 2011 05:25 PM |
NASA's Juno spacecraft, which left Earth August 5 to begin its five-year, 1.7 billion-mile journey to Jupiter, has close involvement with the University of Leicester.
High Flying Research at Leicester - 1.7 billion miles away!

Artist's concept of Juno. Credit: NASA

The project will offer the public the opportunity to participate in the mission’s science endeavours and will also provide researchers with spectacular close-up colour images of Jupiter, including the first detailed glimpses of the planet’s poles.

Professor Stan Cowley FRS, of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, is co-investigator on the Juno mission and was invited to participate through the theoretical work the team at Leicester has done on Jupiter's environment.  The Leicester team has been principally Professor Cowley, Dr Emma Bunce (now Reader in the Space Research Centre), and Dr Jonathon Nichols (now STFC Advance Fellow in Physics & Astronomy).

Pole position

Professor Cowley explains the University's involvement in the mission below:

Stan Cowley

“One of the main goals of the mission is to investigate the origins of the Jupiter's auroras for the first time from a polar-orbiting spacecraft. 

“Jupiter is surrounded by a huge region dominated by the planet's magnetic field, the magnetosphere, and the auroras are produced by large-scale electric current systems flowing between the magnetosphere and Jupiter's upper atmosphere, the ionosphere.  These currents, up to 100 million amps in total, transfer the spin momentum of the planet from the atmosphere to the magnetosphere, and are therefore fundamental to the dynamics of the outer environment. 

“Currents flowing out of the atmosphere along the magnetic field lines correspond to energetic electrons flowing in, and where these particles hit the top of the atmosphere they excite the atoms there to produce light - the aurora that we can "see" in ultra-violet light. 

Jupiter Aurora
The Jupiter Aurora. Credit: NASA and J. Clarke, University of Michigan

“So Juno will firstly detect the currents flowing through the magnetic effects they produce, secondly it will measure the accelerated particles flowing down (and up) the field lines carrying the current, and thirdly it will observe the resulting auroras that light up Jupiter's polar region. 

“Our contribution, early in the mission planning, was to make a quite detailed mathematical model of these processes, thus allowing estimates to be made of the expected properties - how big are the fields to be measured?  - how energetic are the current-carrying particles? - and so on.  Having at least some idea of the conditions likely to be encountered helps instrument teams have confidence that their designs are optimised for the job in hand.

“Other principal goals of the mission in which we are not directly involved, concern the internal structure of the planet, and probing deeply into the atmosphere using infra red and microwave emissions.”

The spacecraft is expected to arrive at Jupiter in July 2016. The Juno spacecraft -- the first to operate around an outer planet using solar power -- will orbit Jupiter’s poles 33 times, investigating the gas giant’s origins, structure, atmosphere and magnetosphere.