The Juno Mission: Interview With NASA Scientist Dr. Bill Cooke

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NASA's Juno spacecraft is shown in orbit above Jupiter's colorful clouds in this artist's rendering. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Even though NASA is no longer in the business of deploying manned-missions to outer space, they continue to explore the cosmos in ways that have never before been possible.  Their next target is Earth's bigger, gassier neighbor: Jupiter.

On August 5, 2011 the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in conjunction with the Southwest Research Institute launched the Juno mission,  which NASA says will, "improve our understanding of the solar system’s beginnings by revealing the origin and evolution of Jupiter."

This is a pretty big deal in the world of astrophysics.   NASA scientists theorize they will be able to determine the origin of The Giant Planet, "and thereby the solar system" by measuring the amount of water and ammonia in Jupiter's atmosphere.

Scott Bolton, Juno's principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio explains the significance of the mission:


"Jupiter is the Rosetta Stone of our solar system.  It is by far the oldest planet, contains more material than all the other planets, asteroids and comets combined, and carries deep inside it the story of not only the solar system but of us. Juno is going there as our emissary -- to interpret what Jupiter has to say."

But scientists will have to wait a few years to test their theories.  Even though Juno is traveling at a relative speed of over 13,000 miles an hour, it is not scheduled to reach its final destination until July 2016.

And the ride to Jupiter is not exactly a clear path.  Juno will face many obstacles - including large mentors - that can potentially derail the $1.1 billion project.

Thankfully, scientists can rely on old "maps," or astro-photographic images of the night sky to plan a flight path that will steer the spacecraft away from debris.

Dr. Bill Cooke, head of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office, says the astro-photographic plates housed at the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute (PARI) contributed directly to the success of the Juno mission;

"Juno, for example, in order for it to be successful they have to design it.  And one of the things they have to design it for is to protect it from meteoroids out in space.  Well we never measured meteoroids around Jupiter, because we don't go there very often, right?  So we have to take what             we've learned here at Earth to help us design that spacecraft to go to Jupiter and those negatives [at the Astronomical Photographic Data Archive] helped formulate the model we used to design that spacecraft to go to Jupiter.

Dr. Cooke is referring to a collection of nearly 150,000 old astro-photographic plates and film known as APDA, or the Astronomical Photographic Data Archive.  The APDA collection is stored at PARI's secure facility in Western North Carolina.

Dr. Cooke became aware of the collection a few years ago and has quickly become on of its biggest advocates:

"The photo archive which contains a lot of the photographs that form the basis of modern meteor science are housed … at ADPA.  They collected them from around the country, but those old photographs, that data, formed the basis for everything we know now in regards to meteors.  So it's kind of like visiting a treasure trove of ancient data.  The great hieroglyphic inscriptions out there in APDA."

Brendan Fallon of the American Meteor Society examines film in the APDA collection.

The connection between APDA and the Juno mission came full orbit during this year's annual NASA Fireball Workshop, which took place at PARI's Rosman, North Carolina campus.  Attendees were able to watch the Juno launch and then walk into the archives to hold the original pieces of film that helped Juno's engineers develop a safe flight path.

By relying on old astronomical plates and film - some of which date over 100 years old - today's astronomers can safely stand on the shoulders of their predecessors and reach for the stars, without fear of being knocked down by meteors.

For more info check out NASA's website for the JUNO mission:

twitter: @NASAJuno