Meet NASA's Newest Astronauts: LEGO Figurines

What three LEGO-made crew members are doing on a spaceship to Jupiter

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Three funny-looking astronauts are heading to Jupiter aboard NASA's Juno spacecraft on Friday. The LEGO figurines, appropriately, represent the Roman god Jupiter, his wife Juno, and Galileo Galilei. While the rest of the Juno spacecraft is orbiting Jupiter, measuring the amount of water in the planet's atmosphere and trying to understand its evolution, the specially constructed toys will hopefully inspire young children to be interested in space and science. It turns out that the Juno's playful payload is just the latest project in a long-standing partnership (called called "Bricks in Space") between NASA and LEGO.

"Any of you that have children know that LEGOs are very popular with kids, as well as really helps teach them about building and engineering," principal investigator for the Juno mission said at a press conference on Wednesday. "We hope that that [these LEGO Minifigures] will increase awareness of children about the space program and get them interested. This will also help them understand both the mythological studies that went on... and also the contributions that Galileo made."

The NASA partnership is probably best known for the space-themed LEGO sets that first appeared in 1973. Since then, LEGO figurines have flown on the space shuttle, gone to Mars and visited the International Space Station, where astronauts attempted for to build model spaceships in zero gravity. Space-faring LEGOs aren't the same as the ones you buy in Walmart, though.

"They are basically the size of the normal LEGO figures which you will see, but they are made out of aluminum, very special aluminum and they have been prepared in a very special way," Bolton said. "They are made out of a special space-grade aluminum. They have gone through all the testing to make sure that they fit on our spacecraft in a way that is like our other science instruments."

The three figurines aboard Juno will ride wrapped in thermal blankets along with a plaque bearing Galileo's visage and a passage from his 1610 observations about Jupiter. NASA explains in a press release that Jupiter, known as Zeus in Roman mythology, holds a lightning bolt while his wife June clutches a magnifying glass "to signify her search for the truth." The spacecraft Juno is actually equipped a color camera on board that will take close-up images of the planet's surface. Galileo, meanwhile, has a telescope.

NASA hasn't said what will happen to the figurines when they come back to Earth. We're guessing eBay auction. After all, NASA could use the extra cash.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.