Three 1.5 inch aluminium figures made by Lego rode an Atlas V rocket into space this afternoon. Why is NASA launching Lego toys into space? Well, someone at NASA must have a sense of humor, and someone at Lego is a brilliant marketer. NASA clearly bought into Lego’s pitch that the toys will get kids interested in the mission, but I think someone at NASA just got a kick out of the adult symbolism at play here as well. Two figurines represent the Roman Gods Jupiter and his wife/sister Juno. The third is a cute model of the ‘Father of Modern Science’ Galileo Galilei, who discovered the planet Jupiter’s four largest moons.
Jupiter and Juno are the Roman versions of the Greek Gods Zeus and Hera. It is fitting that the largest planet in the solar system is named after the chief god of classical mythology as Jupiter was the most powerful of the gods. He was also as free-wheeling as any of them, and whenever he’d sneak out for a little extra-marital fun he would cloak himself in clouds to hide what he was doing. His wife Juno, however, had the power to see through this shroud of mists and find out what he was up to. The Lego Jupiter holds lightening bolts in his hand, since they were the symbols of that god’s power. The Lego version of Juno holds a magnifying glass. Now, a magnifying glass is not what the Romans ever depicted her with – that would have been peacocks, a goat-skinned cloak, and weapons (she was after all the mother of Mars, the war god), but for the NASA mission named Juno the magnifying glass depicts her ability to peer through Jupiter’s clouds, which is exactly what the satellite Juno is designed to do in a low orbit above the planet. For a year the satellite will orbit the planet to determine the water content and detailed composition of Jupiter’s swirling atmosphere.
The Galileo figurine is my favorite. He is holding a small version of the planet Jupiter in one hand and the self-made telescope that he discovered Jupiter’s four largest moons with in his other. He has a much fuller beard than the real Galileo had, and on his head is the Lego dimple-ring for snapping on a hat, or presumably a space helmet. He represents real science, not myth. Galileo was the first person to discover the Jovian system in the first place and it is fitting that, at least symbolically, he will be there to explore it close up.
There have been six other satellites that have observed Jupiter in addition to the Hubble Space Telescope. What makes Juno special is that it is armored to be able to fly through the planets destructive radiation belts like no spacecraft before. Underneath that radiation and just over 3,000 miles above the cloud surface of Jupiter the little satellite Juno with its three figurines will examine in the most detail ever the largest planet in our solar system.