As you are reading this, there is currently a small spacecraft out in space called Juno. Juno is orbiting the largest planet in our Solar System, Jupiter. A fitting name, considering Juno is Jupiter’s wife in Greek mythology. Juno was launched back in 2011 and travelled 2.8 billion kilometres over a five year period before reaching the gas giant in mid-2016. Jupiter’s gravity captured the spacecraft after a series of braking manoeuvres, and it now orbits the planet in a highly elliptical orbit. Juno gets as close as 4,200 kilometres above the cloud tops of Jupiter, to as far away as 8.1 million kilometres.
As incredible as this (and any NASA mission) sounds, there is something that makes Juno different from any other NASA mission. Juno is a mission for the public and by the public. Typically, space missions are executed and controlled by government space agencies and scientists who work closely in a team. Juno, however, is different. Early on, before Juno even launched, NASA consulted the public as to what the mission should achieve. There was an overwhelming push for a camera to be onboard. Not a fancy scientific camera, but a standard visible light camera. Prior to this public push, NASA was not even considering such a camera, as a visible light camera offers little scientific value. We already know what Jupiter looks like, as we have powerful telescopes here on Earth. But, the implementation of this camera did add one important thing to the mission: public engagement.
The camera is called JunoCam. It was not designed to last more than eight orbits of the planet, as Jupiter’s strong radiation is expected to fry the mechanics of the camera. It’s not that powerful either. The camera is only 2MP, compared to the 12+ MP of today’s smartphone cameras. What makes this camera so special? The fact that the public decides what it will photograph before the spacecraft skims the cloud tops. Amateur astronomers and enthusiasts alike can vote on the Juno website what target it will photograph before the fly-by. After Juno snaps the images, they are uploaded directly onto the website as RAW image files. From there, anyone can download and process the photos as they please.
There have been some incredibly detailed images, all which have been processed and edited by the public. The resolution of these photos is astounding, and they are dozens of times clearer than any photos we have captured of Jupiter’s atmosphere before. The swirling orange and white cloud bands look reminiscent of Vincent van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’. NASA has dubbed anyone who processes an image as a ‘citizen scientist’.
If you want to check out these images, you can have a go yourself and editing and processing the photos here
You can see what other citizen scientists have done here