Keeping Juno’s Data Flowing from Jupiter

The Deep Space Network team manages the communications transmitted from the Juno spacecraft after its launch into Jupiter’s orbit last year.

More than a year has passed since the Juno spacecraft safely entered Jupiter’s orbit after its more than five-year trek in space. Peraton’s Deep Space Network is solely responsible for tracking, communicating and receiving data from all spacecraft from the moon and beyond.

Communicating with spacecraft many millions of miles beyond Earth requires highly sensitive receivers and massively powerful transmitters, unlike any used elsewhere. The Peraton team operates and maintains the DSN’s six large antennas, as well as multiple network and communications systems, several network operations centers, and facilities for testing, logistics, and maintenance and repair.

DSN’s international communications complexes in California, Spain and Australia support myriad interplanetary robotic spacecraft missions, including Voyager 1 and 2, the Mars Exploration Rover Project, Curiosity and the Cassini Saturn mission. Moreover, Peraton’s Deep Space Network has supported most major U.S. space programs since the 1960s.

The Juno mission is advancing understanding of our solar system by revealing facts about the origin and evolution of Jupiter. Juno is studying Jupiter’s atmosphere and interior to discover what lies beneath its clouds and what comprises its mass. It is mapping the huge planet’s gravity and magnetic fields and measuring the amount of water present.

During the past 14 months, Juno’s orbits around the notoriously stormy giant have produced a vast amount of fascinating scientific data. We have new information about interplanetary dust, Jupiter’s rings, plasma wave recordings, gravitational and magnetic fields, Jovial auroral formation, Jupiter’s chemical and physical composition, and the big question of whether Jupiter has a core.

Jupiter has proven to be far stranger than anyone had anticipated. In fact, nearly every model scientists have for what to expect about Jupiter has been found to be wrong. Juno’s gravitational field data showed that the internal makeup of Jupiter wasn’t as homogeneous as scientists had expected, data indicated that Jupiter’s magnetic field is lumpy and varies from location to location. The Jovian auroras–vivid glows that are created when high-energy particles enter a planet’s atmosphere near its magnetic poles and collide with atoms of gas–seem to be generated in a nearly opposite fashion to the auroras on Earth. Every major finding but one was unexpected: the gap in radiation just above Jupiter’s equatorial region, but that wasn’t as expected either.

Contrary to anything that has ever been seen in the Solar System, and far from the banded atmosphere of the central regions, the polar regions were seen to be highly individual, with the northern and southern polar regions of Jupiter being unique miasmas of cyclonic and anticyclonic activity. These giant swirling storm masses are composed primarily of ammonia gases and ices. Some storms are as small as 31 miles (50 kilometers) across, while others are massive behemoths.

The cloud-deck weather patterns also seem to penetrate deeper than suspected, including heavy ammonia clouds. Instead of being limited to the highest layers of the cloud tops as was previously thought, the ammonia seems to originate much deeper, with strong ammonia signatures at depths of at least 220 miles (350 kilometers). These signatures run between surface clouds, which extend down 60 miles (100 kilometers), and the convective region, which begins at about 310 miles (500 kilometers) deep.

Gaseous rivers of ammonia seem to well up in convection patterns that are especially thick in the equatorial region, and then reach up into the highest elevation of the clouds.

And more recently, Juno orbited within 5,600 miles of the Great Red Spot. Measuring in at 10,159 miles (16,350 kilometers) in width (as of April 3, 2017) Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is 1.3 times as wide as Earth. This storm has been monitored since 1830 and has possibly existed for more than 350 years. In modern times, the Great Red Spot has appeared to be shrinking.

JPL, NASA, and the DSN are just at the tip of the iceberg on what secrets Juno will uncover about the great Jovian planet. Stay tuned!

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