An amazing event happened this week that simply could not have been conceived of in any practical sense in previous eras. It took place, along no doubt with many other splendid things, big and small, amid the business-as-usual tragedy and turmoil that haunts our planet. It stands as a tribute to human ingenuity and, in a very real sense, to the potentially awesome power for good of higher education.

On Monday NASA’s Juno spacecraft entered Jupiter’s orbit after an engine burn (very) remotely controlled from more than 590 million kilometers away on Earth. Confirmation of the successful orbit insertion was received from Juno tracking data monitored at the navigation facility at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, as well as at the Lockheed Martin Juno operations centre in Littleton, Colorado. To give us a local angle, tracking data were received by NASA’s Deep Space Network antenna in Canberra here in Australia as well as in Goldstone, California.

According to NASA, Juno’s principal goal is to understand the origin and evolution of Jupiter. With its suite of nine science instruments, Juno will investigate the existence of a solid planetary core, map Jupiter’s intense magnetic field, measure the amount of water and ammonia in the deep atmosphere, and observe the planet’s auroras.

The mission also will let us take a giant step forward in our understanding of how giant planets form and the role these titans played in putting together the rest of the solar system. As our primary example of a giant planet, Jupiter also can provide critical knowledge for understanding the planetary systems being discovered around other stars.”

Also, says Helen Maynard-Casely, an instrument scientist with the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation writing in The Conversation, another important part of Juno’s mission is to tell us more about ourselves …

it really does hold most of the ‘stuff’ in the solar system, the very material that we all evolved from. Jupiter is thought to be mainly a ball of hydrogen and helium, and studying how the composition varies as you delve deeper into its clouds will give us a picture of how the planet and the rest of us have evolved.”

Another scientist, Leigh Fletcher, also writing in The Conversation, said Jupiter’s formation played a crucial role in “shaping the architecture of the solar system as we see it today”:

Jupiter’s gravity is thought to have shepherded debris such as comets and asteroids that may have delivered the essential ingredients for life to our home planet. The story of Jupiter’s origins is therefore key to understanding our place in the solar system, and the tantalising possibility that similar events unfolded elsewhere.”

Another wonderful part of the Juno adventure is its educational outreach role. As well as a series of brilliant and funny explanation videos on the Juno mission page, the spacecraft was also home to three Lego figures as part of a joint outreach and educational program developed as part of the collaboration between NASA and the LEGO Group to inspire children to explore science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Take a few minutes to check out the biographies of the team behind the Juno adventure. These 60 or so people are an inspiration to any young person interested in a STEM career, none more so than Scott Bolton, the principal investigator responsible for the success of the mission and leader of the science team.

Bolton is a world-leading theoretical and experimental space physicist. But lest you think he is just some kind of (albeit brilliant) numbers man, think again. He is also an elegant writer with a firm grasp of the importance of history. I’ll leave you with the final paragraph of a paper he co-wrote with Theodore C Clark entitled The planets and our culture a history and a legacy (Proceedings of the International Astronomical Union, 6, pp 199-212. doi:10.1017/S1743921310007428):

Epilogue is prologue. The history and legacy of one era becomes the starting point for the next. In this paper we have linked the past to the present and ride the crest of the New Renaissance into the future. From the dawn of time we have asked: Who am I? Where do I come from? We asked in the marshy Edens of Sumer, again in the glory that was Greece, again in the grandeur of the Renaissance, and again today. Today we are immersed in a New Renaissance and once again communications, the arts, mathematics and science are exploding in unison. The binary code, the internet, and space exploration are the masterworks of this new age.”

DM