Title text: "The name wasn't a tip-off?" "Honestly, at first I thought you were saying 'Juneau'. A gravity assist seemed like a weird way to get to Alaska, but I figured it must be more efficient or something."
This comic was written in honor of the Juno space probe, which made headlines around the world the day before this comic was posted, when it fired its engines and successfully entered into orbit around the planet Jupiter.
It was reported on the day of this comic's release that Juno arrived at its orbit one second off its planned schedule. Since the comic is based on such reports this may explain why this comic was released rather late on the day after Juno's arrival, and also why it was not the subject of the previous comic which was released on the day (fourth of July) when the space probe officially reached Jupiter. This makes it one of several space probe related comics to be released to celebrate the arrival of a space probe to its destination, the previous being 1551: Pluto, which celebrated the arrival of the New Horizon's probe at the dwarf planet Pluto.
Speaking at a NASA press conference, Blondie, standing behind a lectern, announces that Juno has arrived at Jupiter within one second of its scheduled arrival. After traveling 1.7 billion miles (2.8 billion km) such precision is very impressive, which is acknowledged by someone from the press.
The joke is that one of the NASA engineers, Megan, reveals that they actually intended for Juno to arrive at Saturn, but actually arrived at Jupiter with a timing that was still apparently the same within one second. Given the reaction from the spokesperson, she knew this but it was not supposed to slip out.
This is, of course, not true, because if Saturn had been the intended target, Juno would have been off course by 10.25 AU (1 AU is the distance from the Earth to the Sun, or 149597870700 meters) when it arrived at Jupiter. Randall might be making a subtle (or not so subtle) reference to past difficulties NASA has had when converting to metric measurements—in July 2016, Jupiter was 870 million kilometers (540 million miles) from Earth, while Saturn was 850 million miles (1.37 billion km) from Earth (about half the distance traveled by Juno). A similar measurement coincidence was noted in what if? A Mole of Moles. Also, Saturn is a maximum of 1.7 billion kilometers (1.1 billion miles) away from the Earth. For Jupiter, this distance is 968 million km (601 million miles) away. But when traveling between planets, long detours are necessary to reach the goal with a velocity that enables the space craft to go into orbit. So it is just a coincidence that Juno has traveled a distance to get to Jupiter in miles that fits with a possible distance to Saturn in kilometers. The mixup of units mentioned above was directly referenced in 1643: Degrees.
The mix-up of Jupiter and Saturn could be a reference to the book and the film 2001: A Space Odyssey that were written simultaneously. In the book solely written by Arthur C. Clarke they go to Saturn. In the film (from 1968), however, they found it impossible to make Saturn's rings well enough to satisfy director (and co-writer) Stanley Kubrick so in the film version, they ended up at Jupiter instead. (Arthur C. Clarke later made the film canonical when he wrote the sequel 2010, where the plot would only work with Jupiter, mainly because of its size and partly due to its four big moons especially Europa).
It's ambiguous who participates in the title text dialogue. There are multiple interpretations.
It should be noted that Juno is mostly linked to Jupiter and not to Saturn (the probe was sent to Jupiter in the real world), which fits best with the "Press speaks first" explanation.
Press speaks first
In the title text someone from the press asks another question: wasn't the name of the space probe, Juno, a tip off given the relation to Jupiter? The goddess Juno was the wife of Jupiter the chief deity in the Roman mythology. However her father is Saturn so there are relations to both Gods/planets. Her relationship to Jupiter, however, is most likely more common knowledge explaining the naming of the probe.
However, instead of mentioning this dual relationship one of the three NASA representatives say that at first they even believed it was for Juneau, the capital of Alaska, showing that the engineers did not have a clue about the objective of the mission. They did wonder why a gravity assist was planned to get there but guessed it was a more efficient method. Given that gravity assist is only relevant for interplanetary missions requiring a flyby of a planet, it would never make sense to use one to get between two destinations on Earth. This is so even though Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, from where the probe was launched, is about as far away from Juneau as it is possible to get inside the borders of the United States. Maybe it was Cueball who was clueless, in which case he may represent Steve from 1532: New Horizons, now confessing to misdirecting another probe.
The mixup of Juno the Goddess and the capital city of Alaska could be a reference to the film Juno where the title character is named after the Goddess as her father is into Roman and Greek mythology (although she calls her Zeus's wife, Zeus being the equivalent of Jupiter in Greek mythology where Juno would be called Hera). Later a man asks her "Like the city in Alaska?" to which she simply replies "No!"
Scenarios similar to the likely outcome of Juno using its gravity assist (from Earth) to arrive in Juneau (with unchanged orbital energy) have been discussed in what if? Orbital Speed, Hitting a comet, and New Horizons (see also 1532: New Horizons).
NASA speaks first
In the title text someone, likely a member of the NASA team, asks if the name of the space probe, Juno, wasn't a tip off. In Roman mythology the goddess Juno was the daughter of Saturn (though also the wife of Jupiter). However, instead of mentioning this, someone (presumably a member of the press) replies that at first they had thought the probe was named for Juneau, the capital of Alaska. They had wondered why NASA wanted to use gravity assist to get there, but had guessed that it must be more efficient.
Megan continues speaking
The title text might also be continued discussion amongst the NASA representatives. After being shushed, Megan begins needling the spokeswoman about the huge error NASA made. The spokeswoman then admits to being confused about why the mission was so complicated. Alternatively, the third NASA representative might be Steve, now confessing to misdirecting another probe.
Only the press speaks
In another interpretation, both lines are spoken by members of the audience. The second would seem to be producing science journalism of unusually poor quality.
- [At a NASA press conference Blondie stands behind a lectern with the NASA logo. To the left is Megan and to the right is Cueball, both looking towards Blondie.]
- Blondie: After traveling 1.7 billion miles, the Juno spacecraft reached Jupiter within one second of its scheduled arrival time.
- [A person off-panel to the left comments and all three turns towards the speaker.]
- Off-panel voice: Very impressive!
- Blondie: Thank you.
- [All three look straight out as Megan comments on the praise.]
- Megan: I mean, we were aiming for Saturn. Still, nailed the time.
- Blondie: Shhhh.
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