Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Man behind Juno spacecraft and its 'suicidal dive-bomb mentality'

Scott Bolton, left, celebrates in Mission Control at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory as the solar-powered Juno spacecraft goes into orbit around Jupiter. Photo / AP
Scott Bolton, left, celebrates in Mission Control at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory as the solar-powered Juno spacecraft goes into orbit around Jupiter. Photo / AP

The US space physicist behind the Juno spacecraft's historic entry into Jupiter's orbit this month -- a moment more than a decade in the making -- admits the whole concept seemed a pipe-dream at first. But Dr Scott Bolton, director of the Southwest Research Institute Space Science and Engineering Division, says we all need to dream big if we want to achieve great things. He talked to Herald science reporter Jamie Morton ahead of a talk at Auckland University of Technology this evening.

Q. So I'm guessing you're still on a high, following this amazing breakthrough we saw?

A. Oh yeah, I think that that hasn't worn off -- July 4 wasn't that long ago.

So yeah, I'm still on a high, still excited, it's almost like it was a dream.

Q. There was that moment of tension where we weren't quite sure exactly what had happened to Juno and were waiting for that first signal to tell us it had survived entry into Jupiter's orbit. What were the chances of Juno being lost there and then, and the mission effectively being over? How great was the risk?

A. The risk was really great.

It's hard to put a number to it and say the probability was x, or something, but there was a high risk in the sense that we didn't have any experience operating a space craft in an environment that bad.

And while we knew it was really bad, we didn't actually know how bad it was.

It was just sort of a theoretical prediction.

But we knew it was many, many times worse than anything we'd ever tried.

We were trying a very complicated manoeuvre that had to go just right, or we were going to lose everything.

And we had to do it in a region that was harsher than anywhere we'd ever visited before, we were moving faster than we'd ever gone before, and we were in the blind.

I mean, the space craft had to do it all on its own, it couldn't get any help from us.

By the time it would have called home to say things weren't working right, it would have been too late and had flown by Jupiter by the time we even got the signal.

So it was a high risk, high pay-off, manoeuvre.

Q. And that's why we saw those scenes of elation on the ground when it did send back the signal.

A. That's exactly right.

Everybody was ecstatic and relieved.

You know, you go in that day and you've got this completely mixed feeling of emotions, where you're incredibly excited that you're finally getting there and it's something you've been working on your whole life, practically.

But at the same time, it's incredibly tense, because everything is riding on it, and if it goes wrong, all of those years and years of effort and this whole opportunity just goes away.

Q. So how did it all begin?

A. We started the Juno project, a group of us together.

The idea started around the year 2000, when I began realising that maybe we could make some measurements, and we could have a certain type of space craft and get it in this right place.

Then we put together a proposal to Nasa to do that in 2003, so it takes a long time.

One of the things you learn in this business is patience.

Q. How ambitious was the idea back then -- was it almost pie-in-the-sky thinking that you might be able to achieve it?

A. Well, it was.

A lot of people thought it was just a dream. Could we actually do it?

It seemed almost impossible.

We were making a case to go to a place that we knew was the most hazardous of anywhere.

But at the same time we tried to develop a concept that was really simple and straight-forward.

So the risk was a challenge against nature, it wasn't that I had to go and invent a new widget.

It was, do we have enough know-how to take on nature at this level and survive?

And there were some new advances technologically as well, but they weren't as big a challenge as whether we could conquer this.

Can you shield the space craft with an armour plate that's strong enough to last?

Can you make a solar cell that could survive and produce electricity this far away from the Sun?

Jim Green, left, celebrates with Scott Bolton in Mission Control at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Photo / AP
Jim Green, left, celebrates with Scott Bolton in Mission Control at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Photo / AP

Q. And all the while, there would have been so much you didn't know about Jupiter and its environment?

A. It was all unknown.

That was the amazing thing ... what we knew was just enough to be afraid.

Q. But you can only really find these things out by doing what you've just done, by sending a space craft so close to the planet, right?

A. That's right.

The questions that we wanted to address required us to get that close and go into this suicidal dive-bomb mentality -- and we knew that.

We knew that if we were going to go after this, we had to take this bull by its horns and just go for it.

And the question was, could we design something, could we figure it out, could we do it for a reasonable cost and could we do it in a way that, part-way through, we wouldn't say, 'oh we just can't build it'.

We wanted to succeed, so it was very success-oriented and we tried to tailor our scientific appetite to what we thought we could accomplish.

But there was no way we could turn around and say, 'oh, here, we can do this, it's simple'.

We spelled it out to very clearly to Nasa that this was a high-risk venture, but the pay-off was huge.

And that even if we didn't do it now, it wasn't going to get any easier.

Q. Now that Juno's begun its mission and will soon start collecting data and information as it orbits, how exciting is it now to be able to answer all of these incredible questions about Jupiter that you weren't able to before?

A. That's the most exciting part.

Now that we're in orbit, the fun really begins.

We're going to go in and get data and August will be the first time we go in really close, really tight to Jupiter, with all the science instruments on, and we'll see for the first time everything that we've been dying to see for all these years.

The whole team is incredibly excited because it's finally coming true.

We're there, we're about to embark on this incredible adventure, and we're going to see [the planet up close] for the first time.

The opportunity for discovery is just huge because we've never been this close.

Q. Do you think there will be a lot of worried scientists out there, who might have staked their careers on theories around the planet, such as whether it doesn't have a core, or what its role in the formation of our Solar System was?

A. I think there's a lot them, but I don't know if they're worried -- probably just more excited.

But there are people who have staked their career on one side [of a theory] or another.

Although I'm confident they're also pretty creative and whatever data we get, they'll adapt their theories and will try to take the next step with it.

Because what scientists are most excited about is developing a new theory.

But, you know, there are those who get kind of attached to their own ideas and they'll have to face the music, so to speak, when they see the reality.

I saw a lot of publications come out in the last six to eight months, and even now, where people were stepping out on the edge and looking at some data stimulated by the fact that Juno was about to arrive, and trying to interpret it, and taking a guess.

So I think the space community is wrapped up in this and is excited about finding out the truth, and part of that is people who are willing to take a risk and take a guess as to what they think the truth will be.

Q. You speak of taking a leap. Here in New Zealand -- a country of 4.5 million people -- we're just about to join the space community by launching a rocket into space. Do you think it's okay for a small country like us to dream big and believe that we can be part of it?

A. I absolutely do.

And I encourage that, I think everybody in life should think big, set their goals high, work hard to achieve them and never give up.

There's no contribution that's too small.

- NZ Herald

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