This Independence Day, millions of Americans will look to the sky to watch dazzling fireworks. But across the country, scientists will be looking up for an entirely different reason: On July 4, NASA's Juno spacecraft will enter an orbit of Jupiter, giving us an unprecedented window into the history of our solar system's oldest planet.
Jupiter is a strange world, but Juno will make it a little more familiar. In doing so, it could give scientists valuable insight into our own origin story — and clues in the ongoing hunt for alien life.
Jupiter is a planet unlike any other. If every other planet in our solar system teamed up to form one massive monolith of a world, Jupiter would still be two and half times heavier. That incredible mass only becomes more impressive when you consider the fact that Jupiter is a gas giant: With the exception of a rocky core that may or may not exist at its very center, the planet is made entirely of gaseous and liquid elements. When a quarter of your mass comes from helium molecules, it takes a lot of space to carry any real weight. More than 1,300 Earths could fit inside it.
At that size, Jupiter comes close to being more of a sickly star than a powerful planet. In fact, scientists have found many alien stars that bear a striking resemblance to the fifth planet from the sun. Some even have raging storms like Jupiter's Great Red Spot, which has been churning in the planet's atmosphere for hundreds of years.
"Jupiter is a planet on steroids," principal investigator Scott Bolton of the Southwest Research Institute said during a June 16 press briefing. "Everything about it is extreme."
Washington Post: How NASA’s Juno mission could help tell us where we came from