“NASA did it again!” an elated Scott Bolton, Principal Investigator for the Juno mission to Jupiter, announced on the night of Monday July 4th / Tuesday July 5th. He was speaking shortly after the Juno space craft, having travelled 2.8 billion kilometres (1.7 billion miles), achieved an initial orbit around the largest planet in the solar system, becoming one of the fastest human made objects ever built.
“We are in orbit and now the fun begins, the science,” he added during the post-insertion press briefing. “We just did the hardest thing NASA’s ever done! That’s my claim. I am so happy … and proud of this team.”
Solar powered Juno successfully entered a polar elliptical orbit around Jupiter after completing a must-do 35-minute-long firing of the main engine known as Jupiter Orbital Insertion or JOI. The vehicle approached Jupiter over the planet’s north pole – an orbit which will afford some unique views of Jupiter and its system of rings and moons in the coming months.
Due to the time delay, some 48 minutes for a one-way signal, Juno completed the insertion burn entirely on autopilot and, for this initial pass through the planet’s radiation belts, with many of its more critical systems powered-down as a precaution and to preserve battery power – the manoeuvre meant Juno had to turn its solar panels away from the Sun, limiting its ability to generate electrical power for all of its systems.
As I reported last week, the do-or-die burn of the Leros-1b engine had to be carried out flawlessly if the spacecraft were to achieve and initial orbit around Jupiter. By the time it started at 20:18 PDT on Monday July 4th (04:18 UT, Tuesday July 5th), Juno had already accelerated to an incredible 250,000 kph (156,000 mph) relative to the planet, as a result of Jupiter’s massive gravity well, and the 35-minute engine burn was designed to reduce this huge speed by just 1,939 kph (1212 mph).
As tiny as this velocity change might sound, it meant the difference between Juno simply whipping around Jupiter to be thrown back out into deep space and being trapped in a 53.5 day orbit are the planet by that same enormous gravity well. In October 2016, a further 22-minute burn of the Leros-1b will reduce this orbital period to just 14 day, allowing the primary science mission to commence.
That mission is all about peering far beneath Jupiter’s banded clouds for the first time and investigating the planet’s deep interior with a suite of nine instruments. The hope is that Juno will probe the mysteries of Jupiter’s genesis and evolution, and by extension, how we came to be. Or, as Scott Bolton phrased it, “The deep interior of Jupiter is nearly unknown. That’s what we are trying to learn about. The origin of us.”
Life on Titan Without Water?
Further out in space and orbiting Saturn, is massive Titan, another of the solar system’s enigmas. Examined by the NASA Cassini space vehicle and (briefly) by the European Space Agency’s Huygens lander, Titan is fascinating for a number of reasons, including the fact it is the only natural satellite known to have a dense atmosphere rich in minerals and hydrocarbons.
Huygens revealed Titan has a very mixed surface environment, complete with hydrocarbon seas, lakes and tributary networks filled with liquid ethane, methane and dissolved nitrogen. This surface is also very young; while Titan has been around since very early in the solar system’s history – some 4 billion years – the surface environment is estimated to be somewhere between 100 million to 1 billion years old; suggesting geological processes have been and are at work.
All of this – particularly the thick atmosphere (which has a comparable density to that of Earth), the presence of hydrocarbon rich liquids (which also fall as rain) – has caused many astronomers and planetary scientists to speculate that Titan might have all the prebiotic conditions necessary to kick-start life. The only thing which has been seen as potentially mitigating this is the absence of surface water.
However, a team of scientists from Cornell University, New York, led by Dr. Martin Rahm, has proposed that condition on Titan are such that it might support life even without the presence of water.
Specifically, the team has been examining the role that hydrogen cyanide (HCN) might have on Titan. This is an organic chemical, which although poisonous to life today, is seen in some circles as a precursor to amino acids and nucleic acids, and thus a basic building block in the development of organic compounds which in turn might give rise to life.
In particular, hydrogen cyanide is the most abundant hydrogen-containing molecule in Titan’s atmosphere – although it is missing from the moon’s surface – and has some unique properties. It can, for example, react with itself or with other molecules to form long chains, or polymers. One such polymer is called polyimine, which is capable of absorbing light of many wavelengths and might therefore as as a catalyst for photochemically driven chemistry, some of which might be prebiotic in nature and which might in turn give rise to more complex organic reactions.