Countdown begins on Juno’s recon mission to Jupiter

27 Jun 20167 Shares

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This is a composite image of Jupiter’s gaseous atmosphere taken by the New Horizons spacecraft en route to Pluto, via NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

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NASA’s Juno spacecraft is now just one week from its Jupiter destination, with tomorrow’s (28 June) propulsion key to a successful survey of the gassy giant.

Jupiter’s swirling bands of orange, brown and white make it home to the most colourful atmosphere in our solar system. The source of its raging winds, which can reach speeds of 618kph, are a bit of a mystery.

Its powerful magnetic field generates storms of such radiation that most standard measurement tools would fry before we got any decent readings.

That’s why Juno, with radiation-hardened wiring, sensor shielding and a computer housed in a 400lb titanium vault is such a special spacecraft.

NASA’s most hardened reconnaissance machine is homing in on Jupiter’s equator, with tomorrow’s propulsion hoped to set it on course for the closest continuous orbit yet of our solar system’s most interesting planet.

“We are not looking for trouble, we are looking for data,” said Dr Scott Bolton, Juno’s principal investigator.

“[The] problem is, at Jupiter, looking for the kind of data Juno is looking for, you have to go in the kind of neighbourhoods where you could find trouble pretty quick.”

In preparation for the imminent arrival of NASA’s Juno spacecraft, astronomers used ESO’s Very Large Telescope to obtain spectacular new infrared images of Jupiter using the VISIR instrument, via ESO/L. Fletcher

In preparation for the imminent arrival of NASA’s Juno spacecraft, astronomers used ESO’s Very Large Telescope to obtain spectacular new infrared images of Jupiter using the VISIR instrument, via ESO/L. Fletcher

Juno, much like the successful New Horizons mission to Pluto, is armed with a camera that’s hoped to reveal much more about Jupiter than we’ve ever known before.

And, after five years of flying through space, NASA engineers seem pretty relieved to have gotten this far.

“It is a great feeling to put all the interplanetary space in the rear-view mirror and have the biggest planet in the solar system in our windshield,” said Rick Nybakken, Juno project manager from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

NASA’s Juno spacecraft obtained this colour view on June 21, 2016, at a distance of 10.9 million kilometers from Jupiter. Here’s hoping the JunoCam gets better images next week, via NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

NASA’s Juno spacecraft obtained this colour view on 21 June, 2016, at a distance of 10.9m kilometers from Jupiter. Here’s hoping the JunoCam gets better images next week, via NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

All of Juno’s instruments, including JunoCam, are scheduled to be turned back on approximately two days after achieving orbit.  JunoCam images are expected to be returned from the spacecraft for processing and release to the public starting in late August or early September.

There are actually a few oddities on board the spacecraft, none more so than three Lego figures depicting the 17th-century Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei, the Roman god Jupiter, and the deity’s wife Juno.

So if 2014 was the year of Comet 67p, and 2015 that of Pluto, then hopefully, if the next week goes well, 2016 will be Jupiter’s time to shine.

Gordon Hunt is senior communications and context executive at NDRC. He previously worked as a journalist with Silicon Republic.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com