Were you that kid?
I mean, you just clicked on a post with that picture of Jupiter and Juno up there, and you and I – well, speaking only for myself, I’m not actually a rocket scientist. And you? There is a very good chance that you aren’t, either, no matter how smart we are or how talented. But since you are here with me right now, you might have been that kid. I was. On my best days, I still am.
Maybe you know what I mean.
“I’m safe and have been captured by Jupiter.”
The kid whose earliest memories of watching television are of Star Trek. Maybe, like me, of being a fan of Lieutenant Uhura. Outstanding bridge officer always ready at the helm, navigation, and science stations. Specialty? Communications. Well, communications and technology, right? Changing the way the world saw . . . everything.
Maybe there were other things about Star Trek that kept you hooked when TNG came around, or maybe, like me, it was moments like this:
“Juliet on the balcony.” Gets me every time.
That Star Trek combination of language, technology, philosophy, politics, science, and human community and experience is magical. I didn’t grow up to become a scientist, but I did learn to love science and appreciate technology, and when I saw the news about Juno on Monday I could barely stay in my chair.
Thirteen years after the mission’s concept phase, and 48 minutes before the signal arrived at Earth at 8:53pm Pacific on Independence Day, NASA’s Juno spacecraft dutifully sent the message to its folks back at mission control so they’d know that it was doing just fine out there in the big, wide universe.
For most of our offspring, leaving home at 165,000 miles per hour is figurative, and for that matter “captured by Jupiter” wouldn’t exactly be good news. For Juno that intense speed was not only literal, it wasn’t even the half of it. And the capture? What everyone was hoping for.
Juno left home on August 5, 2011. With a destination like Jupiter, which has a crazy-intense, radiation-blasted magnetic field, Juno is now hanging out in one of the most dangerous environments of our solar system. Project scientist Steve Levin of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern CA said: “It’s the biggest and baddest planet in the solar system and it’s got the biggest and baddest radiation and the biggest and baddest magnetic field.”
Why is Juno out there? Well, we have questions.
Or, more specifically, NASA has questions.
Does Jupiter have a solid core?
How much water is in the atmosphere?
Which planet formation theory is correct, or do we need new theories?
How does the enormous magnetic field affect the atmosphere?
What can Jupiter tell us about the formation of our home planet, Earth?
It’s Juno’s job to communicate the answers.
Everything I read about Juno’s historic orbit around Jupiter comments on how long it takes, a really long time everyone writes, to get a signal from Juno to Earth. Remember, that time lag is 48 minutes. Less than an hour.
Now, I get that for a scientist who would kind of like to intervene in case something needs intervention, and who has things they want to know, 48 minutes is a really long time. But think of it. Communication from Jupiter to Earth, 365 million miles away, in 48 minutes.
I’m not all Star Trek all the time.
Back when the Babylonians first spotted Jupiter from Earth in the 8th century B.C.E. it would have taken much longer than an hour to get communication from one part of the empire to another. As you likely remember, around the same time, the Ancient Greeks used a person to deliver a message during the Battle of Marathon. The Greeks had defeated the Persian army but they were worried that the Persians would head to Athens to launch a new attack. Phidippides was given the job of running the 26 miles to Athens to give the news. He made the run in about three hours and successfully delivered his message. However, the run also killed him. The Ancient Roman’s used a relay system with horses, and Egyptian pharaohs sent messages by carrier pigeon.
In Jupiter terms, if it were even possible to run through space, a runner would have to run more than 8 1/2 miles an hour for 4,808 years to get a message from Jupiter to Earth.
The earliest devices for transmitting speech were mechanical acoustic devices based on sound transmission through pipes or another physical media like a tin can connected with a taut string or wire. Their maximum range was about a half mile.
Especially appropriate because of Juno’s 4th of July connection, in 1776 important correspondence dated July 7th and 8th from General William Howe in Staten Island reached Lord George Germain in London the second week of August via the Mercury packet ship. The London Gazette first broke the newsof American Independence on August 10th in a 16-word, 106-character extract from Howe’s letter. “I am informed that the Continental Congress have declared the United Colonies free and independent States.”
Speed up a few hundred years and we’ve gone from the Bell telephone and switchboard . . .
. . . to 2003 and now 2016.
Thirteen years from now it’ll be 2029.
What might communication look like then?
Thirteen years ago someone got this crazy idea that it might be possible to talk with a spacecraft 365 million miles from home. Then, just a few days ago, it took 48 minutes to get communication from Juno in Jupiter’s orbit to the folks at mission control in California, USA, Planet Earth.
In thirteen years, who might we be talking to?