NASA’s JUNO mission to Jupiter: On the difference between science and science communication

Consider the following line of thought: When ESA’s Rosetta probe orbited its comet we were bombarded with a daily dose of high-resolution, spectacular images of such an interplanetary object close up the way it has, quite literally so, never been seen before.

NASA’s New Horizon probe could not deliver near-real-time footage, but once its images were downloaded, space science communicators talked about nothing but «The Heart» on Pluto for weeks and months.

Both these missions have moved on. Rosetta plummeted into its comet on purpose, while New Horizon now targets an object in what is called the Kuiper belt far beyond the planets. We will not hear from it for a while, at least not outside the circle of scientists who use the probe for things less public (though not less intriguing!) in the meantime.

This enhanced-color image of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot was created by citizen scientist Gerald Eichstädt using data from the JunoCam imager on NASA’s Juno spacecraft. (Photo: NASA)

In principle, you would think that now is the time for NASA’s JUNO mission to Jupiter to take over and be the transient space science darling du jour. That has not quite happened, despite

  • the great interest in everything NASA does,
  • the obvious benefit of a general public being proud of the accomplishment,
  • the sheer awesomeness of the mission.

Isn’t it easier to get the next mission financed, too, if also people outside the normal NASA-fanbase know what JUNO is doing? So, yes, one could wonder what is happening.

I do not pretend to have an actual answer. Here is what I think is happening:

JUNO’s cameras and instruments are adapted to its target, which is one, big, bad inferno of a planet with storms of a magnitude and electrification that may be slightly outside the range of what we can imagine here on Earth. Fast rotation and corresponding humongous atmospheric forces can do that. Read more here.

According to JUNO’s webpage, the science mission has these major objectives; and I quote:

Specifically, Juno will…

  • determine how much water is in Jupiter’s atmosphere, which helps determine which planet formation theory is correct (or if new theories are needed)
  • look deep into Jupiter’s atmosphere to measure composition, temperature, cloud motions and other properties
  • map Jupiter’s magnetic and gravity fields, revealing the planet’s deep structure
  • explore and study Jupiter’s magnetosphere near the planet’s poles, especially the auroras – Jupiter’s northern and southern lights – providing new insights about how the planet’s enormous magnetic force field affects its atmosphere.

Image of the electromagnetic spectrum including the visible wavelengths (Illustration: Wikimedia Commons)

Do you notice how none of these bullet points effectively require instruments taking images at visible wavelengths? JUNO has, of course, instruments which investigate the visible part of the spectrum. Yet, also the wavelengths we cannot see we can assign a visible colour to. Whenever you read the expression «false colour image», then this is how the image has been created. The image is not less real, just not exclusively processed by the human brain. Think about it.

Do you begin to see (pun intended) what this means?

One of the most important pieces of knowledge uncovered by science is this: Our senses are not perfect, and, if anything, what we see is not what we get. At all.

Our eyes register too little of the electromagnetic spectrum to for us to even contemplate keeping the attitude behind that phrase.

There is important information hidden in all the rest of the spectrum of light. In order to maximize the amount of knowledge we can extract from a probe to Jupiter we have to adjust the instruments and the light they measure to what we think is best suited to the object of investigation.

Generally speaking, to expect that the objects in space around us should be best observed within that very narrow band of light we can see is perfect hubris. You see, we would be downright stupid not to look at the universe at all the colours we can.

This comes from a now full-time science communicator: A little sensationalism can be good, especially since nature is, in fact, sensational! Yet, it is good to see that in today’s world, the science still wins out. Believe me, you will hear about JUNO’s results anyway, perhaps even in school some time down the road, just not in the quite the same science community transcending way of the Rosetta and New Horizons marketing efforts.

Alexander Biebricher, Ph.D. is a scientist who now holds the position of Physicist and Chief Science Officer at the Spaceship Aurora Visitor’s Center at Andøya Space Center in Northern Norway. You can follow Alexander on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Google +.

Meet a Scientist – While visiting Spaceship Aurora, there is also the opportunity to have a chat with a scientist to take a deep dive into the amazing science behind aurora. Read more.