Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Juno's Journey to Jupiter

Jupiter is the largest planet in our solar system and the planet most responsible for our current planetary orbits and orders. I once coded a model of our solar system that included and then removed Jupiter, and what a difference! Jupiter keeps everyone in line. My favorite feature of Jupiter is its colorful cloudy atmosphere with huge, long-lasting storms. Seven space missions over the course of 43 years thus far have contributed to our knowledge of this gas giant.

Nearly 5 years ago: August 3, 2011. I was on the guest list for the Juno launch to Jupiter on a ULA Atlas V rocket out of Cape Canaveral. As local planetary scientists and members of the American Astronomical Society's Division for Planetary Science, my graduate advisor Josh and I were invited to participate despite having no direct connection to the mission. I do love living in Florida!

The festivities began with an evening welcome reception. Visitors from all over joined in to mingle and feast. The next day, I enjoyed a tour of Kennedy Space Center. Even though I had toured KSC facilities before, it's always fun to see the new happenings!

The first stop was the International Space Station Processing Facility. It's a large high bay of ISS module pieces, similar to the ISS training mock-up displays that I once saw at Johnson Space Center, but larger. We saw one of the Italian Multi-Purpose Logistics Modules named Raffaello, a docking hub, and a payload canister the same size as the space shuttle payload bay. There was also an early mock-up of the Boeing crew capsule, the CST-100 Starliner.

Raffaello - August 4, 2011

An early Starliner mock-up - August 4, 2011

The next stop was the Vehicle Assembly Building. It doesn't matter how many times I've been in the VAB, its sheer massiveness takes my breath away each time. Parked inside, I was so excited to see space shuttle orbiter Discovery, slightly disassembled, done with its space-flying lifetime and preparing to be a museum piece at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Dulles. Seeing it up close and uncovered was amazing! But I almost teared up, because seeing a retired space shuttle like that is heartbreaking.

Retired Discovery in the VAB - August 4, 2011

Finally, the tour bus took us to the Air Force Station side of Cape Canaveral to the Atlas V rocket sitting on the launch pad with the Juno spacecraft tucked inside, waiting to be launched. I've never been that close to an active rocket. It was really cool! We went around the back first, then after the ULA safety officials deemed it okay, we drove around to the front. It's remarkable how little structure there was for the rocket compared to the huge rotating service structure that used to surround the space shuttles on the pad, which is what I was most used to seeing at the time. In comparison, the Atlas V looks so simple and uncluttered. It was beautiful!

Atlas V on the pad - August 4, 2011

Posing with the rocket - August 4, 2011

Bright and early on the morning of Friday, August 5, I arrived at the designated hotel to catch the KSC bus. When pulling into the hotel's parking lot looking for a parking spot while trying to get around the buses, I nearly ran over a man picking up his car at the hotel entrance. It was Charlie Bolden, the NASA Administrator!

We were taken to the Operational Support Building II (OSB-II) near the Vehicle Assembly Building to watch the launch from the fifth floor terrace, a location I had never seen a launch from before. Just prior to the morning briefing, I got a chance to meet Charlie Bolden and get a picture with him. He laughed when I apologized about nearly running him over. The briefing was pretty basic, just a general overview of the Juno spacecraft and mission as well as inspirational and good vibe messages of support. The head of the Italian Space Agency was there as well as a lot of other foreign delegates.

Meeting Charlie Bolden - August 5, 2011

After the briefing, we went outside on the terrace to wait. It was so hot out! We sat in the shade when we could, but that only helped a little. After they kept announcing countdown holds because of various problems (a ground helium leak and a boat in the restricted waters), we went back inside to cool off. Once the countdown resumed, we got a good spot at the balcony. I counted down the last ten seconds. It was so cool to see an Atlas V rocket launch from that close! I was surprised that the rocket lifted off so quickly compared to space shuttles. That rocket in particular has a lot of thrust, but the weight of the payload is light so it can get to Jupiter in a reasonable amount of time.

Juno lift-off! - August 5, 2011

Juno on its way to Jupiter - August 5, 2011

Next week, on July 4, 2016, Juno will “arrive” at Jupiter at long last. Congratulations to the Juno mission team, the scientists who are awaiting this data, and the ULA team that launched it safely there!

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