NASA HAS sent Jupiter’s wife to check up on her husband: Last Monday, the agency’s Juno spacecraft entered Jupiter’s orbit, where it (she?) will spend two years peering through the clouds to find out how the planet is structured and what that can tell us about our own origins. The mission marks a giant leap for research in space. It is also a big step for humans here on Earth.
Ever since the moon landing in 1969, people have longed to reach beyond our planet’s orbit and into the far reaches of the solar system, but the lawmakers who fund NASA have had trouble agreeing on how to do it. Juno is a perfect example of a good answer.
Missions that rely on robots instead of people offer a high reward at a lower cost. Juno is one of those. In fact, its only “human” cargo is a Lego figure of Galileo Galilei. An investment in technology such as Juno is also an investment in health and science below the stars: Space-research spinoffs include technologies from solar panels to search-and-rescue systems. It’s impossible to know exactly what advances will come from Juno’s expedition, but the process stimulated scientific strides that surely will be applied elsewhere.
There is also the simple but scary fact that our world, which has already seen five mass extinctions, may not last forever. NASA hopes to find out whether and how we can live on Mars. Looking at outer planets such as Jupiter and Pluto — which NASA’s New Horizons flew by last summer — allows us to comprehend threats to the whole solar system, such as asteroids and comets. When it comes to the latter, Jupiter takes the punches for us.
These practical implications make missions such as Juno worthwhile. Yet the impulse to journey into infinity isn’t only scientifically sound: It’s human. Scientists believe Jupiter was the first planet created and that its enormous size — 1,300 times the volume of Earth — helped it hold onto everything formed along with it 4.5 billion years ago. Studying Jupiter’s origins, then, means studying the universe’s — and ours.
Humanity’s desire to know is natural and noble. We hope we can better understand ourselves if we understand where we come from, and where we fit into the cosmos. In an age when Americans worry our world seems more confusing each day, perhaps it’s good to get some perspective in the stars.
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