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The Real Jupiteer

NASA Juno Probe is headed where the Belt Squadron goes in 2232If the Defense Command novels of 2232 taught us anything scientific (aside from the dangers of both radiation and Phosgene), it must be that Jupiter is far, far away. Even for fictional ships with artificial gravity and the ability to cruise at 190 kilometers per second, the largest planet of our solar system is terrifyingly far into the black –– weeks away from help, so you better bring what you need, and leave when the orbital seasons favor your voyage.

The Belt Squadron made that hike in The Jupiter Patrol, then came back home in The Dark Cruise, and it was all very difficult. Last week, though, a NASA probe called Juno began the next leg of its real journey to the mighty planet, and I think this genuine Jupiteer (if I can invoke that delightful typo without causing offense) shows how comparatively easy our fictional friends’ trip really was.

I’ve talked before about orbital ‘seasons’ –– my military-history-guided way of remarking on how the relative orbits of planets can have a huge impact on navigation. Well, Juno is depending on them; NASA launched the probe back in 2011, but it’s spent the last two years simply gathering speed. As I understand it, the first stop was Mars, using that planet’s gravity as a slingshot to send it back towards us. Last Wednesday, Juno raced through Earth orbit, using our gravity to accelerate from approximately 126,000 kph to 140,000 kph. Now on course, the probe is bound for Jupiter –– due to get there in 2016.

So that’s two years to get up to what Defense Command would call 39 kps, and now there’s a three-year voyage ahead, just to get an 8,000-pound probe to the Jovian system. Kind of puts things in perspective:

Science fiction, including my own, often creates the impression that all we need to do is point our bow at a fixed point in space, hit the throttle, and we’re off. Traveling through the solar system is either a really cool road trip, or a somewhat-long sea voyage, depending on how good fictional science is. But obviously, that’s not how it works –– and I suspect, not how it’ll ever really work. Everything in our solar system (and our galaxy) is in constant motion, so getting anywhere will take a lot of math, and a lot of power.

We just write easy space travel because (in my case at least) we’re not as smart as the people who actually launch these elaborate missions. I’m trained in history; my job in a story is to get the characters right, and try to use the future as a canvas to comment on subjects relevant to both the past and present. I try not to humiliate myself when it comes to the science, but once you get beyond concepts that I can understand by scribbling on a napkin (like orbital seasons), I’m inevitably going to make a mess of them.

So, I try to deftly push the science far enough to one side so that I never have to fully explain how it works –– just that it does, I promise –– and then if Wolf needs to go somewhere, it’s simply a matter of looking at Helm and Navigation Officer Shelby McLaws, and asking politely that she set the course. She’s good at math.

Unfortunately, Shelby doesn’t exist, and neither does Wolf. Obviously. As such, until a new technological leap (say, warp drive) comes around, NASA is going to have to use every trick in the book to get our probes –– and our people –– out of Earth’s local space. I suggest we pay attention as they do this, because if we ever hope to really get out there ourselves, they’re the ones who will make it possible.

So hats off to the real Jupiteer; safe voyage to the Jovian system, Juno.

Rendering of the NASA Juno Probe
Rendering of the Juno probe above Jupiter’s pole. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Also: watch out for derelict frigates full of Kroggs and Phosgene.