On August 5, 2011, the Juno deep-space probe began its five-year mission to Jupiter, and on Monday, July 4, at 8:18 p.m. PDT, Juno will fire its main engine, beginning a 35-minute burn that will place it into orbit around the fifth planet from the Sun and the largest in our solar system.
For those of you space enthusiasts, you probably knew all that. But what you may not have known is that Juno has been carrying three passengers on its lengthy journey.
Over five years ago, to inspire children to explore science, technology, engineering and mathematics, a partnership between NASA and the LEGO Group was formed. The highlight of this outreach and educational program was that three specially-constructed aluminium LEGO Minifigures bearing the likeness of the Roman god Jupiter, his wife Juno and Galileo Galilei were put aboard the Juno spacecraft.
"Juno holds a magnifying glass to signify her search for the truth, while her husband holds a lightning bolt," a LEGO press release from 2011 explained the significance of each figure. "The third LEGO crew member is Galileo Galilei, who made several important discoveries about Jupiter. He used a telescope to confirm the phases of Venus and discovered the four largest satellites of Jupiter (named the Galilean moons in his honour). Of course, the minifigure Galileo has his telescope with him on the journey."
"During its mission of exploration, Juno will circle the Jovian world 37 times, soaring low over the planet's cloud tops -- as close as about 2,600 miles (4,100 kilometers)," NASA explained. "During these flybys, Juno will probe beneath the obscuring cloud cover of Jupiter and study its auroras to learn more about the planet's origins, structure, atmosphere and magnetosphere."