Way out in space, so far that it takes a message nearly an hour to reach earth, the Nasa craft Juno is doing what the classical mythologists anticipated.

The spinning, solar-powered explorer is carrying history and wry humour on its remarkable mission. Its payload includes three aluminium Lego figures fashioned to resemble characters from the narrative behind the 2.7 billion-km journey.

There is the Italian Galileo, who described the four largest moons around Jupiter. His little model, appropriately, carries a telescope. The other metal passengers are Juno, the goddess whose name is attached to the mission, and a bearded Jupiter, complete with lightning bolt.

Tucked inside the spacecraft is a plaque inscribed with some of Galileo's observations from 1610, deductions which somewhat shattered the received wisdom about Earth's place in the universe. By observing the moons orbiting Jupiter, the astronomer concluded that that not everything revolved around Earth, which had been thought of as the centre of the universe.


So it was clever of Nasa to pack the spirit of Galileo in the space freight, just as the agency must have found it impossible to resist naming the orbiter after a classical figure. In mythology, Jupiter, somewhat of a bounder, cast a veil of clouds to hide his indiscretions.

Juno, his wife, peered through and unmasked his betrayals. The Nasa mission ends in 2018 when the explorer plunges into the planet, ending its days embraced by its celestial partner.