Planets

Juno Buzzes Jupiter, Gets Closest View

On Saturday, NASA's Jupiter mission carried out its first of 36 orbital flybys of the gas giant, zipping by only 2,600 miles above the planet's cloud tops.

At 6:44 a.m. PDT (9:44 a.m. EDT) on Saturday (Aug. 27), NASA's daring solar powered Juno mission took a deep dive toward Jupiter, successfully completing its first orbital close approach of the gas giant. According to mission controllers, the spacecraft is performing well and is now commencing its outward swing toward apojove -- the point in Juno's orbit furthest from Jupiter.

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Interestingly, Saturday's perijove (point of closest approach in Juno's orbit) was the closest the spacecraft will come for its entire mission. At that point, Juno was traveling a breakneck speed of 130,000 miles per hour!

"Early post-flyby telemetry indicates that everything worked as planned and Juno is firing on all cylinders," said Juno project manager Rick Nybakken, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., in a statement.

This was the first time that Juno's entire suite of science instruments were taking data and focused on Jupiter, so this orbital flyby was a test-run before Juno's science mission begins later this year. We can expect imagery at perijove from the spacecraft's JunoCam to be released over the coming days, but the mission did beam back this view of a crescent Jupiter as Juno was barreling toward Jupiter's north pole on Saturday at 437,000 miles away.

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"We are getting some intriguing early data returns as we speak," said principal investigator Scott Bolton, of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. "It will take days for all the science data collected during the flyby to be downlinked and even more to begin to comprehend what Juno and Jupiter are trying to tell us."

Juno's orbit will take it over the planet's poles, showing us a perspective we've only glimpsed at in the past. Throughout the remaining 35 orbits of Jupiter, Juno will give Jupiter a comprehensive "heath check" of sorts, studying its gravitational and magnetic fields. It will also decipher the chemicals in Jupiter's thick atmosphere. All of these studies will reveal new science behind the gas giant's evolution and, by extension, help us understand how the other planets, including Earth, came to be.

RELATED: Watch Juno's Final Approach to Jupiter

Although 35 orbits may not sound a lot, it's likely the limit of what Juno can accomplish. The mission is now embedded in one of the most irradiated regions of the solar system, where highly energetic particles can wreak havoc with a spacecraft's hardware. Though sufficiently shielded, Juno will eventually succumb to its orbital environment.

But before that happens and mission controllers still have control of the spacecraft, it will be commanded to plunge into Jupiter's atmosphere on its 37th orbit in early 2018 to burn up. This is to prevent the spacecraft from dying in orbit and potentially slamming into the enigmatic moon Europa in the future. Should there be any microbial contamination on Juno, it could contaminate the icy moon that holds much promise for harboring alien life beyond Earth.

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