Weekly Space Hangout – October 11, 2013: Government Shutdown, Juno Flyby, ISON Update

After last week’s non-episode, the Weekly Space Hangout roared back to life. We had big news on the Government Shutdown, the Earth flyby from the Juno spacecraft, and a big update on Comet ISON.

We also had a special guest, author and journalist Lee Billings, who was here to talk about his newest book, Five Billion Years of Solitude. Lee talked about his work on the book, and the state of extrasolar planet research in general.

Here was the team:

Host: Fraser Cain

Panel: Casey Dreier, Nancy Atkinson, Amy Shira Teitel, Jason Major, and David Dickinson

Special Guest: Lee Billings


Government Shutdown Continues
Juno Flyby
Triple Transit on Jupiter
Death of astronaut Scott Carpenter
45th Anniversary of Apollo 7
Update on Comet ISON
Iranian Space Cat May Fly
Strange Cloud Seen From the Station

We broadcast the Weekly Space Hangout every Friday afternoon as a Google+ Hangout on Air. You can watch us live on Google+, or on YouTube, or right here on Universe Today. We start at 12:00 pm Pacific / 3:00 pm Eastern.

NASA’s Juno Spacecraft Returns 1st Flyby images of Earth while Sailing On to Jupiter

Following the speed boosting slingshot of Earth on Wednesday, Oct. 9, that sent NASA’s Juno orbiter hurtling towards Jupiter, the probe has successfully transmitted back data and the very first flyby images despite unexpectedly going into ‘safe mode’ during the critical maneuver.

Juno is transmitting telemetry today,” spokesman Guy Webster, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL), told me in a phone interview late today (Oct. 10), as Juno continues sailing on its 2.8 Billion kilometer (1.7 Billion mile) outbound trek to the Jovian system.

The new images of Earth captured by the Junocam imager serves as tangible proof that Juno is communicating.

“Juno is still in safe mode today (Oct. 10),” Webster told Universe Today.

“Teams at mission control at JPL and Lockheed Martin are actively working to bring Juno out of safe mode. And that could still require a few days,” Webster explained.

Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for Juno.

The initial raw images of Earth snapped by the craft’s Junocam imager were received by ground stations late today.

See above a day light image mosaic which I reconstructed and realigned based on the original raw image (see below) taken with the camera’s methane filter on Oct. 9 at 12:06:30 PDT (3:06:30 PM EST). Juno was to be flying over South America and the southern Atlantic Ocean.

This day side raw image of Earth is one of the 1st snapshots transmitted back home today by NASA’s Juno spacecraft during its speed boosting flyby on Oct. 9, 2013. It was taken by the probes Junocam imager and methane filter at 12:06:30 PDT and an exposure time of 3.2 ms. Credit: NASA/JPL/SwRI/MSSS
This day side raw image of Earth is one of the 1st snapshots transmitted back home today by NASA’s Juno spacecraft during its speed boosting flyby on Oct. 9, 2013. It was taken by the probes Junocam imager and methane filter at 12:06:30 PDT and an exposure time of 3.2 milliseconds. Juno was due to be flying over South America and the southern Atlantic Ocean. Credit: NASA/JPL/SwRI/MSSS

Juno performed a crucial swingby of Earth on Wednesday that accelerated the probe by 16330 MPH to enable it to arrive in orbit around Jupiter on July 4, 2016.

However the gravity assist maneuver did not go entirely as planned.

Shortly after Wednesday’s flyby, Juno Project manager Rick Nybakken, of JPL, told me in a phone interview that Juno had entered safe mode but that the probe was “power positive and we have full command ability.”

“After Juno passed the period of Earth flyby closest approach at 12:21 PM PST [3:21 PM EDT] and we established communications 25 minutes later, we were in safe mode,” Nybakken explained.

The safe mode was triggered while Juno was in an eclipse mode, the only eclipse it will experience during its entire mission.

The Earth flyby did accomplish its objective by placing the $1.1 Billion Juno spacecraft exactly on course for Jupiter as intended.

“We are on our way to Jupiter as planned!”

“None of this affected our trajectory or the gravity assist maneuver – which is what the Earth flyby is,” Nybakken stated.

Juno’s closest approach was over South Africa at about 561 kilometers (349 miles).

Juno’s flight track above Earth during Oct. 9, 2013 flyby. Credit: NASA/JPL
Juno’s flight track above Earth during Oct. 9, 2013 flyby. Credit: NASA/JPL

During the flyby, the science team also planned to observe Earth using most of Juno’s nine science instruments since the slingshot also serves as a key test of the spacecraft systems and the flight operations teams.

Juno also was to capture an unprecedented new movie of the Earth/Moon system.

Many more images were snapped and should be transmitted in coming days that eventually will show a beautiful view of the Earth and Moon from space.

“During the earth flyby we have most of our instruments on and will obtain a unique movie of the Earth Moon system on our approach, Juno principal investigator Scott Bolton told me. Bolton is from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), San Antonio, Texas.

“We will also calibrate instuments and measure earth’s magnetosphere, obtain closeup images of the Earth and the Moon in UV [ultraviolet] and IR [infrared],” Bolton explained to Universe Today.

Juno is approaching the Earth from deep space, from the sunlit side.

“Juno will take never-before-seen images of the Earth-moon system, giving us a chance to see what we look like from Mars or Jupiter’” says Bolton.

Here is a description of Junocam from the developer – Malin Space Science Systems

“Like previous MSSS cameras (e.g., Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s Mars Color Imager) Junocam is a “pushframe” imager. The detector has multiple filter strips, each with a different bandpass, bonded directly to its photoactive surface. Each strip extends the entire width of the detector, but only a fraction of its height; Junocam’s filter strips are 1600 pixels wide and about 155 rows high. The filter strips are scanned across the target by spacecraft rotation. At the nominal spin rate of 2 RPM, frames are acquired about every 400 milliseconds. Junocam has four filters: three visible (red/green/blue) and a narrowband “methane” filter centered at about 890 nm.”

Juno soars skyward to Jupiter on Aug. 5, 2011 from launch pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 12:25 p.m. EDT. View from the VAB roof. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Juno soars skyward to Jupiter on Aug. 5, 2011 from launch pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 12:25 p.m. EDT. View from the VAB roof. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Juno launched atop an Atlas V rocket two years ago from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, on Aug. 5, 2011 on a journey to discover the genesis of Jupiter hidden deep inside the planet’s interior.

During a one year long science mission – entailing 33 orbits lasting 11 days each – the probe will plunge to within about 3000 miles of the turbulent cloud tops and collect unprecedented new data that will unveil the hidden inner secrets of Jupiter’s origin and evolution.

NBC News has also featured this Juno story – here

Read more about Juno’s flyby in my articles – here and here

Stay tuned here for continuing Juno, LADEE, MAVEN and more up-to-date NASA news.

Ken Kremer

Could Juno’s Path Near Earth Uncover A Flyby Mystery?

Every so often, engineers send a spacecraft in Earth’s general direction to pick up a speed boost before heading elsewhere. But sometimes, something strange happens — the spacecraft’s speed varies in an unexpected way. Even stranger, this variation happens only during some Earth flybys.

“We detected the flyby anomaly during Rosetta’s first Earth visit in March 2005,” stated Trevor Morley, a flight dynamics specialist at the European Space Agency’s European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany.

“Frustratingly, no anomaly was seen during Rosetta’s subsequent Earth flybys in 2007 and 2011. This is a real cosmic mystery that no one has yet figured out.”

The phenomenon has been noticed in several spacecraft (both from ESA and NASA) since 1990. NASA’s NEAR asteroid spacecraft in January 1998 had the largest change, of 13 millimeters (0.5 inches) a second. The smallest variations, with NASA’s Saturn-bound Cassini in 1999 and Mercury-pointing MESSENGER in 2005, were below the threshold of measurement.

ESA won’t even speculate on what’s going on. “The experts are stumped,” the agency says in a press release.

Those experts, however, do have some ideas on how to track that down. ESOC plans to watch Juno’s flyby using a 35 meter deep-space dish in Malargüe, Argentina, as well as a 15-meter dish in Perth, Australia

“The stations will record highly precise radio-signal information that will indicate whether Juno speeds up or slows down more or less than predicted by current theories,” ESA states.

What do you think is going on? Let us know in the comments!

Source: European Space Agency

Spotting Juno: NASA’s Jupiter-bound Spacecraft Gets a Boost from Earth on October 9th, 2013

Psst! Live in South Africa and read Universe Today? Then you might just get a peak at the Juno spacecraft as it receives a boost from our fair planet on the evening of October 9th, 2013.

Launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on August 5th, 2011 atop an Atlas 5 rocket in a 551 configuration, Jupiter-bound Juno is approaching the Earth from interior to its orbit over the next month. Its closest approach to the Earth during its October 9th flyby will occur at 19:21 Universal Time (UT) which is 3:21 PM Eastern Daylight Saving Time. The spacecraft will pass 559 kilometres over the South Atlantic to a point 200 kilometres off of the southeastern coast of South Africa at latitude -34.2° south & longitude 34° east.

For context, this is just about 25% higher than the International Space Station orbits at an average of 415 kilometres above the Earth. The ISS is 108.5 metres across on its longest dimension, and we wouldn’t be surprised if Juno were a naked eye object for well placed observers watching from a dark sky site around Cape Town, South Africa. Especially if one of its three enormous 8.9 metre long solar panels were to catch the Sun and flare Iridium-style!

Two minutes before closest approach, Juno will experience the only eclipse of its mission, passing into the umbra of Earth’s shadow for about 20 minutes. Chris Peat at Heavens-Above also told Universe Today that observers in India are also well-placed to catch sight of Juno with binoculars after it exits the Earth’s shadow.

Juno passed its half-way mark to Jupiter last month on August 12th when the “odometer clicked over” to 9.464 astronomical units. Juno will enter orbit around Jupiter on July 4th, 2016. Juno will be the second spacecraft after Galileo to permanently orbit the largest planet in our solar system.

The passage of Juno through the Earth's shadow on October 9th, 2013. (Credit and Copyright: Heavens-Above, used with permission).
The passage of Juno through the Earth’s shadow on October 9th, 2013. (Credit and Copyright: Heavens-Above, used with permission).

Catching a flyby of Juno will be a unique event. Unfortunately, the bulk of the world will miss out, although you can always vicariously fly along with Juno with Eyes on the Solar System. Juno is currently moving about 7 km/s relative to the Earth, and will move slightly faster than the ISS in its apparent motion across the sky from west to east before hitting Earth’s shadow. This slingshot will give Juno a 70% boost in velocity to just under 12km/s relative to Earth, just slower than Pioneer 10’s current motion relative to the Sun of 12.1km/s.

At that speed, Juno will be back out past the Moon in about 10 hours after flyby. There’s a chance that dedicated imagers based along North American longitudes could still spy Juno later that evening.

Juno approaches the Earth from the direction of the constellation Libra and will recede from us in the direction of the constellation Perseus on the night of October 9th.

The ground track covered by Juno as it passes by the Earth. (Credit & Copyright: Heavens-Above, used with permission).
The ground track covered by Juno as it passes by the Earth. (Credit & Copyright: Heavens-Above, used with permission).

There’s also a precedent for spotting such flybys previous. On August 18th, 1999, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft made a flyby of the Earth at 1,171 kilometres distant, witnessed by observers based in the eastern Pacific region. Back then, a fuss had been raised about the dangers that a plutonium-powered spacecraft might posed to the Earth, should a mis-calculation occur. No such worries surround Juno, as it will be the first solar-powered spacecraft to visit the outer solar system.

And NASA wants to hear about your efforts to find and track Juno during its historic 2013 flyby of the Earth. JPL Horizons lists an ephemeris for the Juno spacecraft, which is invaluable for dedicated sky hunters. You can tailor the output for your precise location, then aim a telescope at low power at the predicted right ascension and declination at the proper time, and watch. Precise timing is crucial; I use WWV shortwave radio broadcasting out of Fort Collins, Colorado for ultra-precise time when in the field.

As of this writing, there are no plans to broadcast the passage of Juno live, though I wouldn’t be surprised if someone like Slooh decides to undertake the effort. Also, keep an eye on Heavens-Above, as they may post sighting opportunities as well. We’ll pass ‘em along if they surface!

Late Breaking: And surface they have… a page dedicated to Juno’s flyby of Earth is now up on Heavens-Above.

Juno is slated to perform a one year science mission studying the gravity and magnetic field of Jupiter as well as the polar magnetosphere of the giant planet. During this time, Juno will make 33 orbits of Jupiter to complete its primary science mission. Juno will study the environs of Jupiter from a highly inclined polar orbit, which will unfortunately preclude study of its large moons. Intense radiation is a primary hazard for spacecraft orbiting Jupiter, especially one equipped with solar panels. Juno’s core is shielded by one centimetre thick titanium walls, and it must thread Jupiter’s radiation belts while passing no closer than 4,300 kilometres above the poles on each pass. One run-in with the Io Plasma Torus would do the spacecraft in. Like Galileo, Juno will be purposely deorbited into Jupiter after its primary mission is completed in October 2017.

If you live in the right location, be sure to check out Juno as it visits the Earth, one last time. We’ll keep you posted on any live broadcasts or any further info on sighting opportunities as October 9th draws near!

– Got pics of Juno on its flyby of the Earth? Send ’em in to Universe Today!

– You can also follow the mission on Twitter as @NASAJuno.

The Big Dipper Like You’ve Never Seen It Before!


All right, it may look just like any other picture you’ve ever seen of the Big Dipper. Maybe even a little less impressive, in fact. But, unlike any other picture, this one was taken from 290 million km away by NASA’s Juno spacecraft en route to Jupiter, part of a test of its Junocam instrument!  Now that’s something new concerning a very old lineup of stars!

“I can recall as a kid making an imaginary line from the two stars that make up the right side of the Big Dipper’s bowl and extending it upward to find the North Star,” said Scott Bolton, principal investigator of NASA’s Juno mission. “Now, the Big Dipper is helping me make sure the camera aboard Juno is ready to do its job.”

Diagram of the Juno spacecraft (NASA/JPL)

The image is a section of a larger series of scans acquired by Junocam between 20:23 and 20:56 UTC (3:13 to 3:16 PM EST) on March 14, 2012. Still nowhere near Jupiter, the purpose of the imaging exercise was to make sure that Junocam doesn’t create any electromagnetic interference that could disrupt Juno’s other science instruments.

In addition, it allowed the Junocam team at Malin Space Science Systems in San Diego, CA to test the instrument’s Time-Delay Integration (TDI) mode, which allows image stabilization while the spacecraft is in motion.

Because Juno is rotating at about 1 RPM, TDI is crucial to obtaining focused images. The images that make up the full-size series of scans were taken with an exposure time of 0.5 seconds, and yet the stars (brightened above by the imaging team) are still reasonably sharp… which is exactly what the Junocam team was hoping for.

“An amateur astrophotographer wouldn’t be very impressed by these images, but they show that Junocam is correctly aligned and working just as we expected”, said Mike Caplinger, Junocam systems engineer.

As well as the Big Dipper, Junocam also captured other stars and asterisms, such as Vega, Canopus, Regulus and the “False Cross”. (Portions of the imaging swaths were also washed out by sunlight but this was anticipated by the team.)

These images will be used to further calibrate Junocam for operation in the low-light environment around Jupiter, once Juno arrives in July 2016.

Read more about the Junocam test on the MSSS news page here.

As of May 10, Juno was approximately 251 million miles (404 million kilometers) from Earth. Juno has now traveled 380 million miles (612 million kilometers) since its launch on August 5, 2011 and is currently traveling at a velocity of 38,300 miles (61,600 kilometers) per hour relative to the Sun.

Watch a video of the Juno launch here, taken by yours truly from the press site at Kennedy Space Center!

Beneath the Surface: Seeing Jupiter’s Hidden Storms

Launched on August 5, 2011, NASA’s Juno spacecraft will arrive at Jupiter in 2016 to study its magnetic field and atmosphere. Using its suite of science instruments Juno will peer inside the gas giant’s thick clouds, revealing hidden structures and powerful storms. To help people visualize what it means to see the invisible, JPL’s visual strategist Dan Goods created the exhibit above, titled Beneath the Surface. It’s an installation of lights, sound and fog effects that dramatically recreates what Juno will experience as it orbits Jupiter. By using their cell phone cameras, viewers can see lightning “storms” hidden beneath upper, opaque layers of “atmosphere”… in much the same way Juno will.

Goods explains: “Humans are only able to see a little, tiny sliver of what there is available in light. There’s gamma rays, microwaves, ultraviolet and infrared light also, and infrared is close enough to the visible part of the spectrum that cell phone cameras can pick it up. Cell phones normally produce more grainy photos at night because they don’t try to cut out the infrared light the way higher-end digital cameras do so in this case, the cell phone cameras are an advantage.” (Via the Pasadena Weekly.)

I had a chance to meet Dan Goods during a Tweetup event for the Juno launch at Kennedy Space Center. He’d brought a table that had magnetic elements set beneath a flat black surface, and by passing a handheld magnet over the table you could “detect” the different magnetic fields… in some cases rather strongly, even though they were all obviously invisible. It was an ingenious way that Juno’s abilities could be demonstrated in a “hands-on” manner.

Watch my video of the Juno launch from the KSC press site.


Beneath the Surface takes that kind of demonstration to an entirely new level.

“I love to work with the world of things that are right in front of you but you just can’t see,” Goods said. “With Juno, there’s all this structure just under the surface of Jupiter, but humans can develop tools that help us understand things we’d never have seen before.”

The exhibit was installed at the Pasadena Museum of California Art until January 8. It will now travel to science museums around the country.

Video: watch how the exhibit was constructed.

Juno’s primary goal is to improve our understanding of Jupiter’s formation and evolution. The spacecraft will spend a year investigating the planet’s origins, interior structure, deep atmosphere and magnetosphere. Juno’s study of Jupiter will help us to understand the history of our own solar system and provide new insight into how planetary systems form and develop in our galaxy and beyond.

Explore the Juno mission more at http://missionjuno.swri.edu/.

Rockin’ With the Juno Launch

Here’s a fantastic look at launch day for the Juno spacecraft, now on its way to Jupiter. It’s hard not to get pumped up for the mission after watching the Atlas V rocket blast into space, sending Juno on its journey. This video is courtesy the United Launch Alliance (ULA). Universe Today will have more original videos from launch day soon from our team of photographers and videographers who were on hand at Kennedy Space Center.