Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Juno Armored Up to Go to Jupiter

NASA's Juno spacecraft will be forging ahead into a treacherous environment at Jupiter with more radiation than any other place NASA has ever sent a spacecraft, except the sun. In a specially filtered cleanroom in Denver, where Juno is being assembled, engineers recently added a unique protective shield around its sensitive electronics. New pictures of the assembly were released today.

"Juno is basically an armored tank going to Jupiter," said Scott Bolton, Juno's principal investigator, based at Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. "Without its protective shield, or radiation vault, Juno's brain would get fried on the very first pass near Jupiter."

Jupiter's radiation belts are shaped like a huge doughnut around the planet's equatorial region and extend out past the moon Europa, about 650,000 kilometers out from the top of Jupiter's clouds.

"For the 15 months Juno orbits Jupiter, the spacecraft will have to withstand the equivalent of more than 100 million dental X-rays," said Bill Mc Alpine, Juno's radiation control manager, based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "In the same way human beings need to protect their organs during an X-ray exam, we have to protect Juno's brain and heart."

The vault is not designed to completely prevent every Jovian electron, ion or proton from hitting the system, but it will dramatically slow down the aging effect radiation has on electronics for the duration of the mission.

"The centralized radiation vault is the first of its kind," Bolton said. "We basically designed it from the ground up."

When NASA's Galileo spacecraft visited Jupiter from 1995 to 2003, its electronics were shielded by special components designed to be resistant to radiation. Galileo also didn't need to survive the harshest radiation regions, where Juno will operate.

But Juno isn't relying solely on the radiation vault. Scientists designed a path that takes Juno around Jupiter's poles, spending as little time as possible in the sizzling radiation belts around Jupiter's equator.