NASA probe explores the mysteries of the giant planet

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims His handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. (Psalm 19:1-2)

After hurtling through space for five years, NASA’s Juno probe reached Jupiter in July of 2016, ready to gaze deeper into the massive planet’s mysteries. Among Juno’s tasks was to photograph Jupiter’s polar regions, previously unseen from Earth, and peer through the vast clouds of the gas giant’s atmosphere in order to study the structure and composition of the planet’s core.

The purpose of the mission was to learn more about our solar system, and possibly about the nature of exoplanets that have been discovered in other solar systems.

But there’s one more mission objective, likely not intended by NASA: Juno’s spectacular images and astounding data have further pulled back the curtain on the glory of God that’s reflected in His heavens.

Juno began transmitting photos as it approached Jupiter, while it was still a great distance out. The most remarkable of these show the giant planet growing ever closer, surrounded by its four largest moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. Viewed in rapid sequence, the images form a stop-motion video depicting the moons circling their planet. It’s the first time humanity has ever been able to watch a celestial body – or four in this instance – orbiting another.

The secular myth of Galileo

These satellites are collectively known as the Galilean moons, in honour of Galileo, who discovered them with his primitive telescope 400 years ago. Observing them on successive nights, Galileo discerned that they were moving around Jupiter. It was the first incontrovertible visual evidence of heavenly objects orbiting something other than the Earth, thus proving that the Earth was not the centre of the universe.

Since then, that discovery has become a key event in a secular myth, retold ad nauseam in science classrooms and the media. Because Galileo found moons circling Jupiter – so the story goes – it was the first major step in throwing off the shackles of religious superstition and beginning the long, triumphant march toward atheistic enlightenment.

History begs to differ, however. To begin with, the geocentric model of the universe never came from the Bible at all, but from the philosophy of Aristotle, channelled through Ptolemy and into the medieval church. By Galileo’s time, it was already being questioned and other models were being discussed, even among churchmen.

Moreover Galileo, like virtually all early scientists, was a person of faith who studied nature because he believed it was created by God and thus worthy of exploration. The thought of searching the heavens for proof that God didn’t exist would have been as alien to him as the idea of looking for little green men on the moon.

When Galileo pointed his telescope at the sky, he saw four points of light circling Jupiter. With the benefit of modern instruments, we can now observe four massive moons, diverse in size and character: Io, dotted with hundreds of active volcanoes, looking like a pizza bubbling under a heat lamp; Europa, smooth as a cue ball and covered in ice, possibly hiding a world of water underneath; Ganymede, a vast rocky sphere, the largest moon in our solar system, larger even than the planet Mercury; Callisto, blasted with impact craters, glinting like a craggy, faceted disco ball.

Our Creator God loves variety. As the Scripture says, “There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory.” (1 Corinthians 15:41)

Pulling back the curtain on the glory of God

Juno has disclosed more of that glory still – which brings us back to Jupiter, the primary focus of her attention.

Jupiter is immense in every way. It’s over twice as massive as all the other planets in the solar system combined. If Jupiter were a hollow sphere, over 1,300 Earths would fit inside. The planet’s most prominent feature, the Great Red Spot, is a hurricane-like storm three times the size of the Earth, which has been swirling in the Jovian atmosphere for at least three centuries. Jupiter has a magnetic field 20,000 times more powerful than ours. This creates permanent polar auroras (which Juno explored) that are larger than our entire planet – “northern lights on steroids,” as one NASA scientist described them.

Essentially a giant ball of gas, Jupiter has no definite surface to speak of. The gas simply gets thicker and more dense the deeper one goes, gradually liquefying and possibly solidifying. What lies at the core remains a mystery – one that Juno was sent to perhaps help unravel.

Named after Jupiter’s wife in classical mythology, there’s more to Juno than mere word association. As NASA explained, “The spacecraft’s name comes from Greco-Roman mythology. The god Jupiter drew a veil of clouds around himself to hide his mischief, but his wife, the goddess Juno, was able to peer through the clouds and see Jupiter’s true nature.”

The naming was clever and rather apt, given the scope of the mission. However, the probe’s significance transcends by far the mythological origins of its name.

New discoveries enhance the wonder of Creation

Since the time of Galileo, skeptics have argued that the more we learn about nature, the less mysterious it will become, and the more it will make God unnecessary.

But in fact the opposite has proven true. Four centuries of discovery have only enhanced the mystery of creation and pointed more clearly to the hand of a Creator.

When Galileo discovered the Jovian moons, it rendered obsolete the ancient model of Earth, surrounded by clockwork crystal spheres containing the sun, moon and stars. In its place was a universe of awe and wonder that could be directly observed.

As little as a century ago, scientists still believed that our own Milky Way galaxy was the extent of the entire universe. And then, new technologies began to reveal a sense of scale and majesty to the cosmos that neither the ancients nor enlightenment skeptics could have ever imagined.

The mythical Juno may have peered through her husband’s clouds to uncover his indiscretions. The modern Juno points to the handiwork of One whose glory exceeds Jupiter’s by an infinite factor.

Indeed the probe’s data may yet unveil mysteries that no one saw coming – mysteries that will drive believers to a renewed sense of awe and wonder at their Maker.

Sources and further reading

NASA has a website, a Twitter feed, and a YouTube channel offering information and visuals from Juno.

Space.com also maintains a page providing the latest news about the Juno mission to Jupiter.

A brief overview of the Juno probe is available at Wikipedia.

Adrienne LaFrance, “Sending an armored tank to outer space,” The Atlantic, June 27, 2016.

Nicola Twilley, “The Juno spacecraft reaches Jupiter,” The New Yorker, July 5, 2016.

Richard Gray and Mark Prigg, “Juno shares snaps from its epic journey: Nasa probe has beamed back 1,300 images taken on 1.8 billion mile trip to Jupiter,” Daily Mail, July 20, 2016.

© 2019 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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