Exploring Jupiter

In 2016, NASA’s Juno spacecraft began orbiting Jupiter to gather information about the planet’s formation and evolution. In this segment, we sit down with the mission’s principal investigator, Scott Bolton, who reveals some of his team’s findings.


In 2016, NASA's Juno spacecraft began orbiting Jupiter to gather information about the planet's formation and evolution.

In this segment, we sit down with the mission's principal investigator, Scott Bolton, who reveals some of his team's findings.

Jupiter is the largest planet in the solar system.

Deep inside this gas giant lie the secrets of the solar system's creation.

So, the goal of Juno is to learn about how Jupiter formed and what does that tell us about the formation of the entire solar system.

Jupiter's the largest planet, so it likely formed first.

It used more than half of the leftovers after the sun was born.

And so when we learn about Jupiter's formation, we learn about all the planets, including Earth, and the way Juno learns about Jupiter's origin is we look inside to see how it's built.

What is the structure like inside of Jupiter?

How is it rotating inside?

What are the different layers?

And what is it made out of?

The Juno spacecraft arrived at Jupiter in 2016 and continues its extraordinary mission today.

Yeah, some of the newest results we've gotten have come from the gravity field, and we're learning that the zones and belts, what we thought was a weather layer on the outside of Jupiter, is actually penetrating quite deep, down to about 3,000 to 5,000 kilometers down.

And we can see from the gravity field that there's an asymmetry in the flows.

There's something moving around, just like the zones and belts that we see on the outside, 3,000 kilometers down inside of Jupiter.

No spacecraft has ever flown this close to Jupiter or this deep into its lethal radiation belts.

Well, we know pretty much where Jupiter is, and we're flying by it very close each time, but each time we get that close, we're updating what's called the ephemeris of Jupiter, or the orbit, exactly.

And so we're nailing it down.

So far, we haven't been surprised.

We've been able to target exactly where we want to go, and there's no big surprises, but we are updating that orbit in a big way, and at the end of Juno's mission, we will have a much better understanding of Jupiter's orbit.

While NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory manages the day-to-day operations of Juno, it's principal investigator responsible for all aspects of the mission is Dr. Scott Bolton of Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.

What Juno's about is mapping Jupiter, and, of course, to map it, you would like to go over as many longitudes as possible and get a fine grid, so to speak, and right now we have a very coarse grid.

And so we haven't learned about all the asymmetries.

So when scientists came in, this was another surprise.

We went in to map the gravity field.

Everybody assumed it would be symmetric -- basically, north, south, and certainly longitudinally it would be symmetric.

But we found out that wasn't true.

So now, to really map the magnetic field and the gravity field, we have to go over as many longitudes as possible.

Each time Juno passes close to Jupiter, we go over a different longitude.

And so we have it designed so that, at the end of the mission, after 32 orbits, we will have a very fine grid.

And so that's what we're aiming for.

Dr. Bolton's interests go beyond space exploration.

He is involved with advancing the intersection of art and science, including collaborations with major musicians on projects like Apple Music's 'Destination: Jupiter' and, most recently, providing actual space sounds from Juno's Jupiter flight for the band Little Big Town's version of the Elton John classic, 'Rocket Man.'

And one of the interesting things is that, this little Juno, it's going to arrive at Jupiter, but I want to know how the spacecraft's doing.

I want to know how some sensors are doing.

The whole spacecraft is set up to send down tones during this critical maneuver when we go into orbit.

What they really are is musical notes that, based on what musical note is sent, how something's doing.

Is it working well, or is it not?

And it's kind of interesting that it all comes down to musical notes, basically.

We're gonna learn about Jupiter's interior and how it formed and what's it like inside, and so what that's gonna tell us is how giant planets work.

And giant planets are really important in the galaxy and in the solar system.

We see them around other stars, and so we're learning how solar systems are made.

We're getting the first step in the recipe of how you make a solar system, and that's really what Juno's about.