Juno made it! Almost five years after launching on a beautiful Florida day, the spacecraft has entered Jupiter’s orbit. While we were all shooting fireworks, NASA was busy shooting its own. A 35-minute engine burn to get the Juno spacecraft in orbit around the solar system’s biggest planet.
The 35-minute engine burn was a slight tap on the brakes for the spacecraft traveling 150,000 miles per hour. After the burn was completed, Juno was traveling 1,212 miles per hour slower – but more importantly, was captured by Jupiter’s enormous gravitational pull.
“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 at 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 the mission they are looking for.”
NASA administrator Charles Bolden also gave a huge shout out to Juno and the team.
“Independence Day always is something to celebrate, but today we can add to America’s birthday another reason to cheer — Juno is at Jupiter. 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.”
To celebrate the successful orbital insertion, NASA released a stunning timelapse taken by Juno last month showing the motion of the Galilean satellites.
These are the moons Galileo Galilei saw through his telescope in 1610. And the discovery would fundamentally change the understanding of our place in the universe forever. Earth wasn’t the center of everything. Jupiter’s moons proved that all the dots in the sky don’t revolve around us. It was a revolutionary discovery in astronomy at the time.
Juno is in orbit around Jupiter, and its solar arrays are pointed back at the sun. But the team still isn’t quite where they want to be.
NASA released a press kit last month detailing the next steps:
Right now, Juno is in the Capture Orbit Phase. Each orbit takes about 53 days to complete. Over the next three months, Juno’s mission team will switch back on the science instruments, test them and test the data processing pipeline to make sure everything is good to go.
Image showing Juno’s different orbital phases.
Last night’s firing of Juno’s engine was a pivotal milestone for the spacecraft. But it will need to fire the engine one more time. On October 19th, Juno’s main engine will ignite for the final time. A nearly 22-minute burn will bring the orbit from 53.5 days to 14 days.
Here’s a video animation showing the 14-day orbits Juno is aiming for.
Unlike last night’s burn, three instruments will remain on during the final burn. The Microwave Radiometer instrument, Advanced Stellar Compass instrument and Flux Gate Magnetometer will be trained on Jupiter and gather as much as science as they can.
The Advanced Stellar Compass instrument will “exploit a unique opportunity for imaging Jupiter’s north polar region and darkened hemisphere at low light levels and high time resolution.”
The Flux Gate Magnetometer will begin gathering data that will be used to build a global magnetic field map of Jupiter.
Around October 21st, final instrument checkouts will be made along with science observations. The primary science orbits take place from Orbit 4 to Orbit 36.
Juno’s mission team won’t be waiting until October to get started, though. Yep, that’s when the primary science gathering begins – but Juno’s team is about to get started.
“Our official science collection phase begins in October, but we’ve figured out a way to collect data a lot earlier than that,” said Scott Bolton, the principal investigator for Juno. “Which when you’re talking about the single biggest planetary body in the solar system is a really good thing. There is a lot to see and do here.”
Juno’s nine instruments will see and do a lot.
The spacecraft’s main mission is to understand the origin and evolution of Jupiter. That means looking for a solid planetary core, mapping its powerful magnetic field, looking for water, watching its breathtaking auroras and more. The Hubble Space Telescope gave us a sneak peek at Jupiter’s auroras recently.
Can you imagine how incredible they will look from right above them?
The more we learn about Jupiter, the more we learn about Earth and how our entire solar system took shape. It will also provide valuable insights into how other planetary systems form across our galaxy and beyond.
The main takeaway from last night? Juno made it! The burn was successful, and its solar panels are turned back towards the sun. There’s still work to be done, but Juno’s mission team can breathe a much-needed sigh of relief.
Image credits: NASA