Studying Jupiter, space from Southern Utah

Dr. Candice Hansen-Koharcheck studying images of Jupiter, St. George, Utah, July 2021 | Photo by Adele Park, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — It’s possible to be part of a NASA space mission without being an astronaut or even a scientist. More remarkably, this can be done from the comfort of one’s home in Southern Utah. Ivins resident Dr. Candice Hansen-Koharcheck is inviting all interested parties to participate in the imaging project for the Juno spacecraft currently orbiting Jupiter.

Dr. Candice Hansen-Koharcheck studying images of Jupiter, St. George, Utah, July 2021 | Photo by Adele Park, St. George News

The Juno space probe was launched in 2011 and began its polar orbit of Jupiter in 2016. The purpose is to understand what role Jupiter – the largest planet in the solar system – played in forming the other planets. Scientists have determined Jupiter has no surface and its atmosphere reaches to its likely core. Hansen-Koharcheck said Jupiter has a very powerful magnetic field, making it uninhabitable but still worth studying.

“By understanding Jupiter and its interior structure, magnetic field and its whole system, it tells you about the rest of the solar system,” Hansen-Koharcheck said.

The JunoCam is a stationary camera attached to a spinning probe, orbiting Jupiter every 53 days.  Hansen-Koharcheck said a wide angle camera attached to the spacecraft allows them to photograph the storms happening at the poles of Jupiter.

“We’re seeing a lot of territory at a very high resolution because we’re very close,” Hansen-Koharcheck said. “That means we see small details across a big swath of Jupiter so you can see the context of the storm.”

The initial payload for the Juno spacecraft didn’t require a camera as one of its instruments needed to meet its science objectives. That freed the imaging team to try some different things. One of them was inviting the public to be part of the process. The imaging platform allows people to post their own photos of Jupiter to the NASA website. The response has been phenomenal, filling more than 500 website pages with images of Jupiter.  Hansen-Koharcheck looks at the new photos every day, using them as a way to gauge where the storms are moving. In turn, this helps her decide what to focus on when the JunoCam is passing near the poles of Jupiter.

Artistic piece celebrating NASA’s Jupiter Mission, location and date not specified | Photo courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech, St. George News

JunoCam images are posted for the public to process. Contributions range from scientific products to works of art – some artists have painted the planet while others have taken images of Jupiter and artistically enhanced them. Hansen-Koharcheck said they didn’t go looking for artists, but welcome and even celebrate their contributions, noting many of them are quite beautiful.

“Some of these are very carefully processed versions of our raw images,” Hansen-Koharcheck said. “Others are artistic interpretations.”

The Juno Mission will continue until 2024 so there’s still plenty of time for photographers, armchair scientists and artists to get involved.

Desperately Seeking Saturn

Long before Hansen-Koharcheck was studying Jupiter from her office in Southern Utah, she was in Pasadena, California working for the Jet Propulsion Lab, a subcontractor for NASA. One of Hansen-Koharcheck’s jobs was working on the Cassini Mission. NASA was using Cassini to orbit Saturn and study two of its moons: Titan and Enceladus. Although small in size, Enceladus has an interior ocean which erupts geysers of water though its frozen surface. This was a huge discovery because it meant there was the possibility to host life.

“We know it has methane,” Hansen-Koharcheck said. “We don’t know if there is life there, but there could be.”

Cassini orbited Saturn for 13 years until NASA “spiraled it to its death” in 2017. Hansen-Koharcheck said Cassini returned tons of valuable data but was running out of fuel.

“Once it hit the atmosphere and got deep enough, the pressure essentially crushed the spacecraft,” Hansen-Koharcheck said. “Disposing of Cassini was part of an international agreement not to contaminate the moon.”

The Pale Blue Dot

Pale Blue Dot image taken by Voyager 1 spacecraft, location and date not specified | Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech, St. George News

Valentine’s Day, 1990. Hansen-Koharcheck sits alone examining images from Voyager 1, not knowing she is on the precipice of making history. Her task was to examine images taken of Earth as Voyager 1 exited the outer edges of the Solar System. Carl Sagan had lobbied NASA to take the photo, acknowledging the detector on the camera might be ruined due to the proximity of the sun.

When she first examined the photos of Earth taken by Voyager 1, Hansen-Koharcheck worried they might have missed the shot. The images showed bright streaks of light against a dark background.

“I all of a sudden realized there was a bright spot in one of those rays of scattered light,” Hansen-Koharcheck said.

That dot turned out to be planet Earth. The photo was taken during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Dubbed the “Pale Blue Dot” by Sagan, the image is important because it shows how tiny Earth is compared to the vastness of space. Hansen-Koharcheck said the message Sagan wanted to convey was that we all share this planet, and thus need to work together to survive on it.

STEM Sister

When Hansen-Koharcheck started working as a subcontractor for NASA, there were very few women in the field. Through mentoring and volunteer efforts, Hansen-Koharcheck is aiming to change that.

Cassini spacecraft with Huygens probe lifts off for Saturn, location and date not specified | Photo courtesy of NASA, St. George News

“I think it’s really important for young women to see women doing things like I do,” Hansen-Koharcheck said. “It creates a sense of possibility.”

Each summer, Hansen-Koharcheck teaches at the e-Smart camp sponsored by the American Association of University Women. Held on the Dixie State University campus, girls going into the eighth grade stay in the dorms and attend classes taught by women in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Hansen-Koharcheck teaches a class where students get to make a comet out of dry ice and water.

“The girls love it, and it’s fun for me because their enthusiasm is contagious,” Hansen-Koharcheck said.

Volunteer efforts from groups such as the American Association of University Women are helping Southern Utah grow its own crop of young women ready to follow in the footsteps of scientists such as Hansen-Koharcheck.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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