NASA's Juno mission is now in orbit around Jupiter after a thrilling, picture-perfect orbital insertion maneuver late July 4, America's Independence Day.
After traveling through the solar system for 5 years, covering 1.7 billion miles, the solar powered spacecraft was traveling too fast to be captured even by the gas giant's powerful gravity, so the spacecraft had to do the rocket equivalent of applying the brakes. For 35 minutes, Juno's 645-Newton Leros-1b main engine burned as planned and, at 11:53 pm ET, Jupiter had a new satellite.
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"Independence Day always is something to celebrate, but today we can add to America's birthday another reason to cheer -- Juno is at Jupiter," said NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden in a statement. "And what is more American than a NASA mission going boldly where no spacecraft has gone before? With Juno, we will investigate the unknowns of Jupiter's massive radiation belts to delve deep into not only the planet's interior, but into how Jupiter was born and how our entire solar system evolved."
This underscores the biggest danger that mission engineers and scientists have been losing sleep over: the unknowns.
The environment surrounding Jupiter is arguably one of the most dangerous places for a robot to hang out. Experiencing tens of millions of times more radiation during its 20 month primary mission than we experience on the Earth's surface, if Juno's electronics weren't so well shielded, they'd be fried almost instantly. As Juno rapidly approached Jupiter, mission controllers even shut down the spacecraft's instrumentation to avoid any unforeseen damage.
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Even after orbital insertion was confirmed by NASA's Deep Space Network, there were a few tense moments while controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., awaited a signal that confirmed Juno's solar panels were facing the sun so its batteries could charge while orbiting the planet. Fortunately, that signal came and NASA could focus on calibrating Juno before its science mission begins in October.
Juno is an impressive spacecraft, sporting 3 huge solar arrays consisting of 18,698 individual solar cells. Five times further away from the sun than Earth, Juno has made history as the furthest-ever solar-powered spacecraft, so correct solar-pointing was a do-or-die maneuver.
"The spacecraft worked perfectly, which is always nice when you're driving a vehicle with 1.7 billion miles on the odometer," said Rick Nybakken, Juno project manager from JPL. "Jupiter orbit insertion was a big step and the most challenging remaining in our mission plan, but there are others that have to occur before we can give the science team members the mission they are looking for."
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So now we have to wait for a few more weeks before Juno can start exploring Jupiter's interior, so we can begin to understand its origins and evolution and, by extension, gain an insight to how our solar system and life itself formed.
For more details about Juno's arrival at Jupiter, check out Irene Klotz's DNews coverage and if you want to know more of the science Juno will be investigating, check out Elizabeth Howell's handy gallery.
-- Ian O'Neill