NASA's Juno space probe is now 21 days away from entering the polar orbit of Jupiter, moving at a speed of about 4 miles per second.
The long awaited mission will unravel new insights and confirm or debunk theories about the gas giant, which is the largest and most massive of all eight planets in the solar system.
Furthermore, astronomers are excited about what the mission could reveal regarding the early formation of our solar system and the characteristics of exoplanets that lie beyond the realm.
Examining The 'Recipe For A Solar System'
Experts from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory led the launch of the five-year Juno mission in 2011.
Jupiter, which is nearly 1,400 times the size of our own planet, contains almost the same composition of the sun, NASA researchers said.
But although the gas giant is similar to the sun in composition, it likely contains three to four times more heavy elements, says Scott Bolton, principal investigator of the Juno mission.
Bolton says they want to understand how Jupiter was formed.
"In many ways, what we're after is the recipe for a solar system," he says.
But why Jupiter? The gas giant is a crucial part of the recipe because most of the elements that make up the planet is what we are also made of, adds Bolton.
Formation Of Jupiter
One theory for the formation of Jupiter surmises that cosmic ice and the distance of the gas giant to the sun allowed the planet to capture the helium and hydrogen that greatly makes up its composition.
A previous mission in the 1990s, which involved the Galileo spacecraft, dropped a probe into the atmosphere of Jupiter and found little water.
In the current mission, when the Juno probe comes near Jupiter, six microwave antennas will launch a volley into the planet's atmosphere to detect concentrations of oxygen and water.
Steve Levin, project scientist of the Juno mission, says it is important to know the water content to confirm whether the theory state above is actually true.
Some experts believe that the Galileo spacecraft may have hit an especially dry area of Jupiter.
Levin says that if the new space probe detects a similar concentration of water throughout Jupiter, every theory about the planet's formation would be contradicted. It could send scientists back to the drawing board.
'A Planet On Steroids'
The Juno probe's namesake is the ancient Roman goddess who was wife to the lord of the gods, Jupiter.
Juno was able to see through his husband's smoke screen, even after he kept his mischief hidden beneath a veil of clouds. With her intense gaze, she pierced through the veil and saw the god's true nature.
The Juno spacecraft will do the same. It will look past the stormy atmosphere of Jupiter through the help of micro- and ultraviolet plasma and infrared waves.
Additionally, instruments will help scientists map the gravity and magnetic fields, the water and oxygen concentration, and the overall "chemical fingerprint" of the gas giant. And because Jupiter is extremely high on radiation, scientists built a titanium vault to house the instruments.
The probe will also help examine the oddities on the planet, such as the rivers of metallic hydrogen produced by the intense pressure and auroras, which are more enormous than that seen on Earth.
"Everything about Jupiter is extreme," says Bolton. "It's a planet on steroids."