Image: Juno
An artist's conception shows the solar-powered Juno probe in orbit around Jupiter. Juno is due for launch next week, with arrival at the giant planet scheduled for 2016.
updated 7/28/2011 10:29:25 AM ET 2011-07-28T14:29:25

The first planet to form around the sun was greedy, sucking up more than twice of what was left for its sister planets, including Earth, to share.

Scientists believe giant Jupiter then used its great girth to slingshot other bodies around the solar system, though it may have started off in a different locale than where it resides today, roughly 400 million miles from Earth.

Figuring out where — and how — Jupiter formed would refine knowledge about the birth of planets and how some — like Earth, and possibly others in other solar systems — ended up being in the right place at the right time for life.

"What we're after is discovering the recipe for how to make planets," planetary scientist Scott Bolton, with the Southwest Research Institute at San Antonio, Texas, told Discovery News.

To that end, United Launch Alliance, a commercial launch services firm owned by Boeing and Lockheed Martin, next week plans to send NASA's Juno spacecraft on its way to Jupiter. Scientists hope the five-year journey ends with the spinning, solar-powered probe orbiting over Jupiter's poles and passing as close as 3,100 miles above its cloud tops.

From that vantage point, Juno's eight science instruments can determine how much water is in Jupiter, a key measurement needed to determine where the planet formed.

"Possibly the single most important measurement Juno is going to make is going to be the global water content of Jupiter," Juno project scientist Steve Levin, with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., told Discovery News.

If the planet formed roughly where it exists today, scientists expect Jupiter would be about nine times richer in water than the sun. If Jupiter formed farther out in the solar system where it's colder, the amount of water might be around three times solar levels. Other models predict Jupiter has about the same abundance of water as the sun.

Juno also will map Jupiter's gravity to look for signs of a solid core, as well as map its magnetic mazes.

For pure spectacle, Juno has a camera, which is no doubt poised to capture fantastic pictures of Jupiter's ultraviolet aurora.

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Juno is not the first probe to go to Jupiter, but it will be operating in unexplored terrain. Of eight previous visiting spacecraft, only the Galileo atmospheric probe got closer than where Juno is headed and that mission lasted just 58 minutes before Jupiter's heat and pressure destroyed the spacecraft.

After a year, the planet's harsh radioactive environment will cripple Juno too, despite a strong and elaborate titanium shield. Juno's last maneuver will be a suicidal dive into the planet's atmosphere to avoid possible contamination of Jupiter's potentially life-bearing moons.

Juno was hoisted on top of an Atlas 5 rocket at Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Wednesday, in preparation for launch at 11:34 a.m. ET on Aug. 5.

An earlier version of this report misstated how long the Galileo atmospheric descent probe survived.

© 2012 Discovery Channel

Video: Mission to Jupiter

Photos: Jewels from Jupiter

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  1. Jupiter loses a stripe

    The weather on Jupiter is changeable, as these before-and-after pictures show. The photograph on the left shows Jupiter as seen in June 2009. The photo on the right, taken on May 9, 2010, reveals that one of the planet's prominent dark cloud belts has faded away. The lightening of the South Equatorial Belt is due to atmospheric changes. Both pictures were taken by Anthony Wesley, an amateur astronomer in Australia. (Anthony Wesley via The Planetary Society) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Family portrait

    Launched in 1989, the Galileo spacecraft has photographed Jupiter as well as several of the giant planet's satellites. Here's a montage that shows Jupiter's Great Red Spot and the four largest moons. From top, they are Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Cratered Callisto

    Callisto is considered the most cratered celestial body in the solar system. The false-color overlay at right exaggerates the moon's surface features, including the Valhalla impact structure near the center of the disk. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Dark face

    Colors are enhanced in this view of Ganymede's trailing hemisphere, highlighting the moon's polar caps. The violet color indicates where small particles of frost may be scattering light on the blue end of the spectrum. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Cloudy weather

    The mosaic at left shows the true colors of the cloud patterns in Jupiter's northern hemisphere. The rendition at right uses false colors to represent the height and thickness of the cloud cover. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. This is the Spot

    A true-color picture captures the subtle shadings of Jupiter's Great Red Spot, a massive, long-lived storm system in the planet's thick atmosphere. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A big splash on Europa

    A computer-generated perspective view shows the Pwyll impact crater on Europa, an ice-covered moon of Jupiter. The heights are exaggerated, but the central peak indicates that the crater may have been modified shortly after its formation by the flow of underlying warm ice. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A blast at Io

    This image of Io, thought to be the solar system's most volcanically active world, shows the plumes of two eruptions. One plume can be seen at the very edge of the disk, the other is puffing up from the dark volcanic ring near the center of the disk. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Lava light

    An active volcanic eruption on Jupiter's moon Io flares in an image taken in February 2000 by the Galileo spacecraft. The dark L-shaped lava flow to the left of center marks the site of energetic eruptions in November 1999 at Tvashtar Catena, which is a chain of giant volcanic calderas. The two small bright spots at left side of image are sites where molten rock is exposed to the surface at the toes of lava flows. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Crazy quilt

    The thin crust of Europa's Conamara region is criss-crossed by craters, cracks and lines - indicating that the surface ice was repeatedly disrupted. The colors, which are enhanced in this view, show where light ice crystals and dark contaminants have settled onto the surface. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A moving moon

    In a picture taken in April 2001 by NASA's Cassini spacecraft, the moon Io looks like a marble set against the background of Jupiter. Io is the giant planet's third-largest satellite. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
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