Enjoy Juno While You Can

July 26, 2016

In case you haven’t guessed, I am super excited about the Juno Mission. I’m looking forward to writing (and drawing) about it a lot over the coming years.

Jy26 Jupiter and Juno 1

But for the moment, we’re sort of stuck in a holding pattern.

Juno successfully entered orbit of Jupiter on July 4, 2016; however, it will have to complete a second engine burn, scheduled for October 19, before the science mission really begins.

In the meantime, I thought I’d run through some of Juno’s equipment and some of the mission objectives I’m most excited about.

  • Juno Cam: It’s a camera. It takes pretty pictures. Nothing to get too excited about, except Juno’s orbit takes it extremely close to Jupiter. We should be getting some stunning close-ups.
  • JEDI and JADE: Juno has two instruments, named JEDI and JADE, which will detect ionized particles in Jupiter’s magnetosphere. JADE will focus on low-energy particles; JEDI will cover the high-energy stuff. As a science fiction writer, I’m looking forward to knowing precisely what sort of radiation dangers my characters will face near Jupiter specifically and gas giant planets in general.
  • UVS and JIRAM: Juno can see in ultraviolet (using its UVS instrument) and infrared (using JIRAM). So yes, Juno can “see right through” Jupiter, or at least it can see through some of the topmost layers of clouds. Also, observations in UV and IR will help us identify the chemical composition of the clouds. Maybe we’ll finally find out what makes the Great Red Spot red.
  • Gravity Science: By monitoring subtle variations in Jupiter’s gravity, Juno can determine how matter is distributed in the planet’s interior. There are a lot of hypothetical new states of matter that might exist in the interiors of gas giants (like metallic hydrogen); Juno’s gravity experiments could tell us if our hypotheses are correct.

Juno is scheduled to make a suicide dive into Jupiter’s atmosphere on February 20, 2018.

Jy26 Jupiter and Juno 2

I’d hoped there might be a possibility for a mission extension. The Cassini mission got an extra nine years to study Saturn. But NASA doesn’t want to risk contaminating any of Jupiter’s moons (especially Europa).

So over the next two years, we better make the most of Juno while we still have her.

P.S.: JEDI stands for Jovian Energetic particle Detection Instrument. The Star Wars reference is surely a coincidence; it’s not like there are any nerds working at NASA.

Sciency Words: Hot Spots of Jupiter

July 22, 2016

Sciency Words MATH

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us all expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:


This is Jupiter.

Ag05 Great Red Spot

And this is Jupiter in infrared.

Jy22 Infrared Jupiter

In 1995, the Galileo spacecraft dropped a small probe into Jupiter’s atmosphere. It was supposed to sample the chemicals in Jupiter’s clouds, but in a case of extraordinary bad luck, the probe fell into an empty gap between cloudbanks and collected virtually no data.

I like to imagine the clouds separating before the probe, like Moses parting the Red Sea, but I’m sure that’s not how it actually happened.

These gaps in the Jovian clouds are called hot spots. The thin atmospheric gases in these regions are actually quite cold, but when viewed in infrared, they appear hot due to the intense heat of Jupiter’s interior shining through.

The hot spots form—they always form—about seven degrees north of the equator. Eight to ten of them will appear at a time, evenly spaced along that seven degrees north longitude line, wrapping all the way around the planet.

This has led scientists to conclude that Jupiter’s hot spots are caused by a standing wave (more technically, a Rossby wave) in Jupiter’s atmosphere. The peaks and troughs of the wave correspond to the thickening and thinning of the surface clouds.

The Juno spacecraft’s JIRAM instrument (Jovian InfraRed Auroral Mapper) is specifically designed to study Jupiter’s aurorae (as the name implies) and also the hot spots. By staring straight down into a hot spot with an infrared spectrometer, scientists hope to identify the chemical composition of the deeper atmospheric layers. Among other things, they believe they’ll find a layer of water clouds.

Of course the Great Red Spot is a weird and mysterious phenomenon too. It deserves the high level of scrutiny it gets. But of all the spots on Jupiter, the hot spots may turn out to be the most interesting and revealing of the planet’s features.


Jupiter’s Atmosphere Has Weird Hot Flashes from Space.com.

“Hot Spots” Ride a Merry-Go-Round on Jupiter from NASA.gov.

Juno: What’s in a Name?

July 19, 2016

Why is NASA’s current mission to Jupiter called Juno? The answer might seem obvious to anyone with even a passing familiarity with Roman mythology. Jupiter was the king of the gods, and Juno was his queen. Except NASA was a bit cleverer than that.

In this press release from 2011, NASA reminds us that the legendary Jupiter (a.k.a. Zeus) would hide his mischief from his wife, Juno (a.k.a. Hera), by concealing himself and said “mischief” in a veil of clouds.

Jy19 Mythical Juno

By mischief, of course, NASA means mistress, and the veil of clouds routine didn’t work one bit. I believe NASA is specifically referring to the story where Jupiter seduces Io, one of Juno’s own high priestesses!

As for the planet Jupiter, NASA would really like to take a peek beneath the thick clouds of the upper atmosphere. That is precisely what the Juno spacecraft is designed to do, using a variety of techniques from gravity mapping to infrared spectroscopy.

Jy19 Scientific Juno

Also, Juno will not be approaching or interacting with any of Jupiter’s moons (not even Io). In fact, Juno’s mission plan was designed to avoid any close encounters with the moons (most of which are named after Jupiter’s other “mischiefs”) due to planetary protection concerns.

This too strikes me as symbolically appropriate in light of the ancient mythology.

I’m Back from My Recovery Experience

July 14, 2016

I have returned from my vacation! I mean, my recovery experience. You may be wondering where I went.

  • I went to space! (By which I mean I visited the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles and saw a bunch of cool space exhibits.)
  • I went back in time! (By which I mean I visited the La Brea tar pits, also in Los Angeles, and saw the remains of many long extinct creatures.)
  • I survived a futuristic dystopia! (By which I simply mean I was in Los Angeles.)

Joking aside, it was a great vacation. My “recovery experience” has left me feeling thoroughly recovered and eager to get back to writing.

Obviously I have a lot of Tomorrow News Network to work on, but I’m not sure yet what I’ll be writing about for this blog. I feel like it’s been awhile since I said anything about Jupiter. I wonder if any Jupiter news happened while I was away.

Sciency Words: Recovery Experience

June 24, 2016

Sciency Words BIO copy

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us all expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:


You’re feeling stressed. Weary. Burned out. You have too much work piled on top of you.

It might be tempting, whenever you can take a break, to just stop and do nothing. Nothing at all. You only have so much energy. You feel like your mental resources are running low. It makes sense to try to conserve what little you have left, but is that really your best option?

Have a Recovery Experience Instead

Some psychologists recommend that when you feel like your mental resources are running low, don’t just shut down. Don’t try to conserve what’s left.

Instead, do something fun. Even better, do something creative. Like coloring. Or writing poetry. Or playing with Legos (my new favorite). Even something like redecorating your workspace can engage your creative mind.

This is called a recovery experience, because rather than trying to conserve your mental resources by doing nothing, you recover your resources by being creative.

My Experience with Recovery Experiences

I first encountered this term over a year ago. I was writing a blog post about the whole adult coloring book trend and the science allegedly behind it.

As a workaholic (or perhaps I should call myself a write-aholic), I often feel guilty about doing anything other than writing. Having a sciency word like “recovery experience” has helped me get past my guilt.

  • I’m not wasting time playing video games; I’m having a recovery experience.
  • I’m not wasting time building Lego models; this is a recovery experience.
  • I’m not wasting time antiquing; I’m enjoying a recovery… no, actually this isn’t fun for me. This is wasting my time.

Typically, recovery experiences leave me feeling energized and ready for more writing.

And this summer, I’m planning a nice, long recovery experience, with no writing on the agenda at all. This despite the fact that I have a huge writing project to worry about. This despite the fact that I’m getting super stressed about said project and about writing in general (in fact, that’s the very reason I need a recovery experience so badly right now).

Basically, today’s post is a roundabout way of saying I’m going on vacation. I’ll be back in two or three weeks.

Space Harpoons: They’re a Real Thing

June 22, 2016

If the future of space exploration requires an economic incentive, look no further than asteroid mining. All the rare and valuable minerals and metals contained in a single asteroid (except those lousy S-type asteroids) could be worth billions.

But catching an asteroid and landing on it for mining purposes… that’s much easier said than done. You see, no two asteroids are exactly alike, and they each present a host of challenges for asteroid hunters of the future.

Jn22 Crazy Asteroids

There are several ideas for how to catch an asteroid. You could throw a net around it, assuming the asteroid isn’t too big. Or you could latch on with magnets, assuming the asteroid has a high enough metal content.

But the most common idea that I’ve seen is the shoot the asteroid with a harpoon. It makes the whole endeavor feel oddly reminiscent of old timey whaling. You know, like in Moby Dick. Or Star Trek IV.

As I understand it, the harpoon has a cable attached, so once you’ve harpooned yourself an asteroid you can reel your spacecraft in to a secure landing. Or in the case of those wildly spinning asteroids, the asteroid will reel you in by wrapping the cable around itself (what could go wrong?).

So the next time you’re in space trying to grab billions of dollars worth of asteroid, remember to bring a harpoon. And a really strong cable.

P.S.: Also, if an asteroid somehow manages to bite off your leg, maybe it’s best to let it go. As Mission Commander Ahab will tell you, vendettas against whales and asteroids never lead to happy endings.

Molecular Monday: When Isomers Attack

June 20, 2016

As a science fiction writer, I’ve come to believe that chemistry is the most important science for me to research. Chemistry is often defined as “the study of matter and its properties.” It’s hard to tell a story set in our universe without “matter and its properties” getting involved somehow.

However, I do believe there are limits to what I need to know.

What are Isomers?

In the previous Molecular Monday post, I introduced you to the molecule known as octane. Or rather, I introduced you to a molecule known as octane.

Jn20 Octane Isomers

Quiet! You’re all octane.

When you can have multiple versions of the same molecule, the different versions are called isomers. There are 18 isomers of octane (24 if chirality gets involved). Each has eight carbon atoms and eighteen hydrogens, but they’re put together in different shapes.

Isomers can have different freezing points or boiling points, different reactivities, different stabilities…. Professional chemists certainly need to know this. At some point, it may even be relevant for a Sci-Fi story.

An Isomer by Any Other Name…

The story of how octane got its name is quite simple. Unfortunately, naming conventions for the various isomers of octane get complicated. By following the naming guidelines set by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), some of octane’s isomers are officially called:

  • 3-Methylheptane
  • 2,2-Dimethylhexane
  • 3-Ethyl-2-methylpentane
  • 2,2,3,3,-Tetramethylbutane

Now there’s a heck of a lot of information about chemical composition and structure encoded into these names. I can see how these kinds of names are useful… if you know how to decode them.

Which I don’t.

There’s a certain point where I have to remind myself that I am just a science fiction writer; I don’t have to learn everything. Maybe I’ll end up learning this IUPAC code; maybe not. Right now, I think it’s enough for me to know what an isomer is, why isomers matter, and that a well-thought-out naming convention exists (if I ever need it).

And if something like 2,2,4-Trimethylpentane does pop up in one of my stories (or more likely, if I see a name like that during my research), at least I have some idea how to find out what it means.


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