Washington, Nov 25 : NASA is preparing to launch a mission to the planet Jupiter, which will conduct an unprecedented, in-depth study of the planet, understanding its formation, evolution and structure.
Called Juno, the mission will be the first in which a spacecraft is placed in a highly elliptical polar orbit around the giant planet.
Underneath its dense cloud cover, Jupiter safeguards secrets to the fundamental processes and conditions that governed our early solar system.
Understanding the formation of Jupiter is essential to understanding the processes that led to the development of the rest of our solar system and what the conditions were that led to Earth and humankind.
Similar to the sun, Jupiter is composed mostly of hydrogen and helium. A small percentage of the planet is composed of heavier elements.
"Jupiter is the archetype of giant planets in our solar system and formed very early, capturing most of the material left after the sun formed," said Scott Bolton, Juno principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.
"Unlike Earth, Jupiter's giant mass allowed it to hold onto its original composition, providing us with a way of tracing our solar system's history," he added.
The spacecraft is scheduled to launch aboard an Atlas rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in August 2011, reaching Jupiter in 2016.
The spacecraft will orbit Jupiter 32 times, skimming about 3,000 miles over the planet's cloud tops for approximately one year.
The mission will be the first solar powered spacecraft designed to operate despite the great distance from the sun.
"Jupiter is more than 400 million miles from the sun or five times further than Earth," Bolton said. "Juno is engineered to be extremely energy efficient," he added.
The spacecraft will use a camera and nine science instruments to study the hidden world beneath Jupiter's colorful clouds.
The suite of science instruments will investigate the existence of an ice-rock core, Jupiter's intense magnetic field, water and ammonia clouds in the deep atmosphere, and explore the planet's aurora borealis.
According to Professor Toby Owen, co-investigator at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu, Juno would looks through Jupiter's clouds to search for signs of water, the ultimate essence of life.
"Juno's extraordinarily accurate determination of the gravity and magnetic fields of Jupiter will enable us to understand what is going on deep down in the planet," said Professor Dave Stevenson, co-investigator at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.
"These and other measurements will inform us about how Jupiter's constituents are distributed, how Jupiter formed and how it evolved, which is a central part of our growing understanding of the nature of our solar system," he added.