NASA's Juno mission has successfully completed its third close approach of Jupiter, NASA confirmed on Monday. Still in a 53-day orbit, the spacecraft is not due to make another close pass until Feb. 2, 2017. The moment of closest approach to Jupiter's cloud tops occurred at precisely 9:04 a.m. PST (12:04 p.m. ET) on Sunday (Dec. 11) when the spacecraft was traveling at the breakneck speed of 129,000 miles per hour.
The point of closest approach in Juno's orbit - known as "perijove" - brought the solar-powered spacecraft around 2,580 miles (4,150 kilometers) from the gas giant's atmosphere, allowing the mission to gather incredibly precise measurements of the planet's magnetic field, gravity and chemical composition.
Seven of its eight instruments were operational during perijove and NASA expects the close encounter data to be beamed back to Earth over the next few days for analysis.
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According to the Juno's principal investigator Scott Bolton, of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, this was the first time the mission was used to fully investigate Jupiter's internal structure by measuring the planet's gravitational field. "We are looking forward to what Jupiter's gravity may reveal about the gas giant's past and its future," he said before Sunday's encounter.
The only instrument not powered-up during perijove was the Jovian Infrared Auroral Mapper (JIRAM), which was offline while the Juno team completed a software update that processes science data. JIRAM is expected to be fully operational for its fourth perijove in February.