Ahead of Jupiter arrival, Juno returns first colour photo of gas giant

28 Jun 2016

Artist's conception of Juno arriving at Jupiter's northern pole. Image via NASA/JPL-Caltech

It’s taken nearly five years to get there, but NASA’s Juno spacecraft is only a few days away from reaching Jupiter, and already we’re getting its first glimpse of the gas giant.

Since launching back in 2011, NASA has been eagerly awaiting the next few days when Juno will hopefully repeat the invaluable success of the Cassini mission, which sent a huge volume of data about our solar system’s ringed planet, Saturn.

Like Cassini, Juno will orbit the planet 37 times with its array of sensors, to monitor the planet, which has a mass of 300-times that of our own planet. It will particularly focus on its auroras to learn more about the planet’s origins, structure, atmosphere and magnetosphere.

The first major hurdle it crossed, aside from making it through five years of space travel unharmed, was achieved on 31 May when it officially entered the planet’s gravitational grip, and it will arrive at the planet on 4 July.

However, teasing its arrival in just under a week’s time, NASA has released the first colour photograph taken by Juno on 21 June at a distance of just under 11m km from the planet.

Jupiter doorstep

As Juno makes its initial approach, the giant planet’s four largest moons – Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto – are visible, and the alternating light and dark bands of the planet’s clouds are just beginning to come into view. Image via NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

‘This image is the start of something great’

The humbling photograph released by NASA was captured by the mission’s imaging camera, called JunoCam, which is designed to acquire high-resolution views of features in Jupiter’s atmosphere from very close to the planet.

Compared with previous flybys of Jupiter by other spacecraft, which saw the Jupiter system from much lower latitudes, such as Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, Juno will approach Jupiter over the planet’s northern pole.

Speaking of the importance of the image, the Juno mission’s principal investigator, Scott Bolton, said: “This image is the start of something great.

“In the future we will see Jupiter’s polar auroras from a new perspective. We will see details in rolling bands of orange and white clouds like never before, and even the Great Red Spot.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic