Scientists get as excited as anyone about seeing new pictures of the mysterious worlds that populate our vast Solar System—from Mercury’s day-and-night terminator to Pluto’s icy mountains. For far longer than most people, astronomers imagined what these diverse planets, dwarf planets, and moons must look like from up close.
It’s true that planetary scientists such as Fran Bagenal are more interested in data than anything else, and this often goes far beyond pixels. But as an astronomer who has been involved with many of NASA’s Solar System probes, from Voyager to New Horizons and Juno, Bagenal fully appreciates the value of images for capturing the public imagination.
“In the space exploration business, as you may know, cameras rule,” she said in 2016, before the Juno spacecraft reached Jupiter. “It’s there for PR.” For Juno, she noted, the camera was almost an afterthought, because the primary focus of the mission was to elucidate the complex inner workings of Jupiter’s atmosphere and magnetosphere. For these tasks, visible light just won’t do.
“Those of us who measure charged particles always have had to put up with spacecraft being moved all around to take pictures. But on this spacecraft we will tell the cameras which way the spacecraft is pointing.” With the last line, she was kidding. Sort of. But we take her point—Juno is a science mission not an artist’s easel and paintbrush.
All the same, we’re glad Juno brought a camera along during its visit to Jupiter. A year has now passed since Juno’s successful insertion into orbit around Jupiter on July 4. And since then, the JunoCam instrument has delivered in spades, often with photos that more resemble a work of art than a planet.
Listing image by NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Jason Major
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