NASA Friday launched an unmanned probe to Jupiter in a search to find out what is underneath the planet's swirling cover of clouds.
The spacecraft, dubbed Juno , was strapped to an Atlas V rocket and blasted off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at12:25 p.m. EDT.
The weather was good and the launch was flawless.
NASA scientists are hopeful that information from Jupiter either will confirm their theories about how the solar system was formed, but acknowledged it could also change everything they thought they knew.
"The special thing about Juno is we're really looking at one of the first steps, the earliest time in our solar system's history ," said Scott Bolton, principal investigator for the Juno mission, in a statement. "Right after the sun formed, what happened that allowed the planets to form and why are the planets a slightly different composition than the sun?"
The four-ton spacecraft today begins a five-year journey to Jupiter, the largest planet in the Solar System.
Juno is equipped with three 34-foot-long solar arrays, along with a high-gain antenna affixed in its middle. The set up makes the spacecraft look something like a windmill, NASA noted.
The solar arrays will be Juno's only power source, which is a first for a NASA spacecraft traveling beyond the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
The space agency estimates that Juno will arrive at Jupiter in August, 2016.
Once it arrives, the probe will spend about a year surveying the planet and its moons. Juno will send back detailed images of Jupiter's magnetic field.
Instruments onboard the spacecraft will also attempt to determine whether there's a solid core beneath the planet's multi-colored clouds.
This won't be NASA's first close-up look of Jupiter.
Galileo, an unmanned spacecraft launched in 1989, also was sent to study Jupiter and its moons. Arriving at the planet in 1995, it launched the first probe into the planet's atmosphere.
Scientists are hopeful that the data sent back from Juno will build on what Galileo discovered about the planet.
"If we could start to understand the role that Jupiter played and how the planet formed and how that eventually governed the creation of the other planets and the Earth and maybe even life itself." Bolton said.
"Then we know a little bit about how to look for other Earth-like planets, maybe orbiting other stars and how common those might be and the roles that those giant planets that we see orbiting the other stars play," he added.
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin , or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is [email protected] .
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