Space tourism to the relatively close areas of our solar system may be trending on the vacationpackage end, but a team of researchers led by NASA is pushing the boundaries of both science and location to explore the interior of Jupiter. To aid in this quest, the group used carbon composites and – for the first time – implemented carbon nanotubes (CNT) in order to make the Juno spacecraft a successful mission.
The Juno mission is part of NASA’s New Frontiers Program where scientists and industry partners come up with projects to solve certain science questions. In the case of the Juno mission, Scott Bolton from the Southwest Research Institute based in San Antonio, Texas, wanted to understand the interior and various interactions within Jupiter and approached Lockheed Martin and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to be on his team. Out of more than 20 proposals the team’s proposal won.
The specific goals of the Juno mission are to understand the origin and evolution of Jupiter. With its array of instruments, scientists will use Juno to investigate the existence of a solid planetary core, map the planet’s magnetic field, determine the water content of the atmosphere and monitor the northern and southern auroras. “Other missions that have gone to Jupiter have looked at surfaces and cloud structures but not much of the interior,” says Suraj Rawal, principle research scientist at Lockheed Martin Space Systems. “Whereas in the past they were only seen from a distance, for the first time we will also study the poles.”
However, going where no machine has gone before required careful planning by the team. One hurdle they had to overcome was protecting the spacecraft from the electrostatic discharge (ESD) while near Jupiter’s atmosphere. To do this, the team utilized carbon composite components and CNTs. “We used already proven materials like composites to make the overall structure, so we were simply building on methodology we’d already done. Specifically, carbon composites were chosen in order to reduce weight, increase stiffness and lower the overall mass,” says Rawal. “Launchers can only carry specific weight – a lot of it in the form of fuel. And from an engineering standpoint, the lighter the spacecraft, the more instruments we can include to collect valuable data.”