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Fair Oaks scientist helps lead Juno spacecraft to Jupiter

A 1/4 scale model size of NASA's solar-powered Juno spacecraft is displayed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. on Friday, July 1, 2016. The spacecraft is on the final leg of a five-year, 1.8 billion-mile voyage to the biggest planet in the solar system. It's expected to reach Jupiter and go into orbit around the planet on July 4.
A 1/4 scale model size of NASA's solar-powered Juno spacecraft is displayed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. on Friday, July 1, 2016. The spacecraft is on the final leg of a five-year, 1.8 billion-mile voyage to the biggest planet in the solar system. It's expected to reach Jupiter and go into orbit around the planet on July 4. AP

Sacramento residents will have special reason to celebrate on Monday when NASA’s Juno spacecraft enters orbit around Jupiter after five years of space travel. That’s because Dr. Tobias Owen of Fair Oaks has helped lead the Juno mission as it’s worked to shed more light on the formation of our solar system.

It will be a sweet date in many ways for Owen, better known to friends and family as Toby. He was involved on the Galileo mission, the first spacecraft to orbit Jupiter, from 1995 to 2003. Before that, Owen worked on the Voyager missions in the late 1970s, which discovered Jupiter’s rings.

“Jupiter is his baby,” said Owen’s wife, Natasha, by phone.

The 80-year-old’s previous Jupiter work has discovered methane, ammonia and noble gases in the gas giant’s atmosphere. Detecting those substances indicates the likely presence of water, and by his estimate, lots of it.

However, the scientist believes water is located much deeper than any previous spacecraft could detect. Juno will enter Jupiter’s orbit to search for the existence of an ice-rock core, probe the atmosphere and explore the planet’s aurora borealis. One of the first planets in our solar system to form, Jupiter is also believed to have captured and held onto materials left over from the sun’s formation.

The spacecraft’s name originates from Greco-Roman mythology. Jupiter was said to conceal his mischievous behavior behind a veil of clouds, but his wife, Juno, was persistent in uncovering his true nature.

On Monday, Owen will be following Juno’s progress with his team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. The Juno mission is scheduled to circle Jupiter until February 2018.

“She was diving below the clouds to see what was going on down there and that’s exactly what Juno is doing,” Tobias Owen said.

A world leader among solar system astronomers, Owen’s expertise includes studying the origin and composition of planetary atmospheres and comets. He received his Ph.D. in 1965 from the University of Arizona under the guidance of Gerard Kuiper, who lends his name to an expansive asteroid belt located beyond the planets of our solar system.

While some of Owen’s work uses ground-based telescopes and laboratory experiments, he also relies on equipment launched into space. Owen worked previously on the Apollo 15 and 16 missions, the Viking expedition to Mars, and the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn.

It was at a Mars conference in 1987 where he met his wife, Natasha, a Russian American who was working as a translator. In 1988, the two settled in Hawaii where he became an astronomy professor at the University of Hawaii.

His wife was named an honorary consul of the Russian Federation in 1998, the first woman to hold such a position. Alongside her work as a diplomat, Natasha has been active in philanthropy for years, raising millions of dollars for orphanages and clinics overseas.

The Owens moved to the Sacramento region four years ago to be closer to relatives, and Natasha established an honorary consulate in the area that was closed earlier this year due to strained relations between the U.S. and Russia.

Tobias Owen said international space collaborations present an opportunity for countries to set aside differences and work together. NASA is already drawing up plans for a trip to Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, which is generating interest among Europeans. If successful, launch would occur sometime in the 2020s.

New discoveries require a “viable and vigorous collaboration” with counterparts in Europe to accomplish what “no one could otherwise do on their own,” Owen said.

Robert Kuo: 916-321-1161, @therobertkuo

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