For a government agency, NASA has a notably off-color sense of humor. Whether they're making horrifying youth recruitment music videos, inviting boy bands on a field trip to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, releasing film parody mission posters, or rifling through the International Space Stations costume closet on an idle Halloween's eve, NASA is always looking for a punchline. Often, the punchline is weird.
NASA's latest knee-slapper incorporates Roman mythology, astronomy naming conventions, and that scene in every rom-com in which someone comes home unexpectedly and sees their spouse knocking boots with a random babe. The joke has been gestating for over 400 years.
Jupiter was named by the Romans, after one of their gods (the equivalent of the Greek god, Zeus). Jupiter's moons hold a special place in the history of astronomy, because they were the first objects to be discovered orbiting around a body other than our Sun or Earth. The moons were discovered independently by both the famed Italian scientist Galileo Galilei and the German astronomer Simon Marius in the early 1600s. All told, Jupiter has 67 moons, but Marius and Galilei only spotted the largest four. These four are known as the Galilean moons, though it was Marius who named them after some of Jupiter's more famous extra-marital lovers: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto.
it's not going to be a happy reunion
It has become tradition to name newly discovered Jupiter moons after the many girlfriends and boyfriends of the Roman god (when astronomers ran out of candidates in 2004, they started using the names of children born to Jupiter and his many paramours).
Now, with the hope of learning more about our mysterious gassy friend, NASA has sent a probe to Jupiter — the Juno spacecraft entered the planet's orbit this weekend, and will come close enough to investigate what goes on over there (i.e. to bust up the party) this August. NASA's big joke? The spacecraft is named Juno, after Jupiter's wife. Oh, and after orbiting the planet 37 times, the spacecraft will crash into Jupiter's surface and meet its death. It's not going to be a very happy family reunion.
Five years ago, when the Juno spacecraft began its long journey to Jupiter, NASA released a statement about the mission which touched on the origins of the spacecraft's name:
"The god Jupiter drew a veil of clouds around himself to hide his mischief, and his wife, the goddess Juno, was able to peer through the clouds and reveal Jupiter's true nature."
NASA doesn't point out that the "mischief" here is serial adultery, but it's clear that they know what they're doing. They're firing Gwyneth Paltrow in the first act of Sliding Doors.They're putting the car keys in Kirsten Dunst's hand in Bring it On. They're not-so-subtly suggesting that John Tucker must die!
In Jupiter's defense, the gas giant is known as Earth's "comet vacuum cleaner" or "comet liver," because its enormous gravitational pull sucks in comets and asteroids that could really rock us if they made it here. One Reddit commenter points out that NASA's scheming to get Jupiter busted seems sort of rude. And it's true — it's not a very kind way to repay all of Jupiter's years of loyal service protecting us from possible extinction events.
In the Roman myth, Juno's rage at discovering Jupiter's infidelity causes her to turn Io into a cow. I will be very curious to see if NASA possesses that technology!