NASA's Juno to circle Jupiter for 'planetary recipe'

July 30, 2011 by Kerry Sheridan
The $1.1 billion unmanned orbiter is scheduled for launch on August 5
An artist's rendition released by NASA shows the Juno spacecraft orbiting Jupiter. The US space agency plans to launch next week a solar-powered spacecraft called Juno that will journey to the gassy planet of Jupiter in search of how the huge, stormy giant was formed.

The US space agency plans to launch next week a solar-powered spacecraft called Juno that will journey to the gassy planet of Jupiter in search of how the huge, stormy giant was formed.

The $1.1 billion unmanned orbiter is scheduled for launch on August 5 -- the start of a five-year odyssey toward the solar system's most massive planet in the hopes that it will be able to circle Jupiter for a period of a year.

With its fiery red eye and a mass greater than all planets in the combined, excluding the Sun, Jupiter is intriguing to astronomers because it is believed to be the first planet that took shape around the Sun.

"After the Sun formed, it got the majority of the leftovers," said Scott Bolton, principal investigator and scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas.

"And that is why it is very interesting to us -- if we want to go back in time and understand where we came from and how the planets were made, Jupiter holds this secret," he said.

"So we want to know that ingredient list. What we are really after is discovering the recipe for making planets."

Juno aims to get closer to Jupiter than any other and will be the first to undertake a of the planet, said Bolton.

In 1989, NASA launched Galileo, an orbiter and probe that entered the planet's in 1995 and plunged into Jupiter in 2003, ending its life.

Other NASA spacecraft -- including Voyager 1 and 2, Ulysses and New Horizons -- have done flybys of the fifth planet from the Sun.

"We are getting closer to Jupiter than any other spacecraft has gone in orbiting Jupiter. We are only 5,000 kilometers (3,100 miles) above the cloud tops," Bolton told reporters this week.

"And we are actually dipping down beneath the radiation belts which is a very important thing for us because those radiation belts are the the most hazardous region in the solar system other than going right to the Sun itself."

Its trip to Jupiter, set to begin on August 5 when the launch window opens at 11:34 am (1534 GMT), will not be a direct shot, according to Jan Chodas, Juno project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

"We launch from Earth in August, we swing out past the orbit of Mars, we do a couple of deep space maneuvers to fire the engine," Chodas told reporters.

Juno then heads back toward Earth, "and we do a flyby of Earth of about 500 kilometers in October 2013, and then we slingshot ourselves out towards Jupiter arriving in July 2016," she said.

When it gets there Juno will make use of a series of instruments, some of which were provided by European space agency partners Italy, Belgium and France, to learn about the workings of the planet and what is inside.

Two key experiments are to gauge how much water is in Jupiter and whether the planet "has a core of heavy elements at the center, or whether it is just gas all the way down," said Bolton.

Scientists also hope to learn more about Jupiter's magnetic fields and its big red knot, a storm that has been raging for more than 300 years.

"One of the fundamental questions is how deep are the roots to that red spot? How does it maintain itself for so long?" Bolton wondered.

Back in 2003, when plans for Juno were being crafted, NASA briefly considered using some sort of nuclear fuel to power the spacecraft, but engineers decided it would be quicker and less risky to go with solar, he said.

Jim Green, director of the division at NASA headquarters in Washington, said Juno is part of a series of new planetary science missions, to be followed by Grail which is headed to the Moon in September and the Mars Science Laboratory set to take off in November.

"These missions are designed to tackle some of the toughest questions in planetary science, all about our origin and the evolution of the solar system," said Green.

Explore further: Juno Taking Shape in Denver

Related Stories

Juno Taking Shape in Denver

April 6, 2010

( -- Assembly has begun on NASA's Juno spacecraft, which will help scientists understand the origin and evolution of Jupiter. The mission, whose principal investigator is Scott Bolton of Southwest Research Institute ...

NASA awards Juno Jupiter mission contract

October 4, 2007

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has picked Lockheed Martin Commercial Launch Services of Littleton, Colo., for the Juno mission to Jupiter.

Jupiter-bound Juno spacecraft mated to its rocket

July 28, 2011

NASA's Juno spacecraft completed its last significant terrestrial journey today, July 27, with a 15-mile (25-kilometer) trip from Astrotech Space Operations in Titusville, Fla., to its launch pad at the Cape Canaveral Air ...

Recommended for you

NASA telescope studies quirky comet 45P

November 22, 2017

When comet 45P zipped past Earth early in 2017, researchers observing from NASA's Infrared Telescope Facility, or IRTF, in Hawai'i gave the long-time trekker a thorough astronomical checkup. The results help fill in crucial ...

Uncovering the origins of galaxies' halos

November 21, 2017

Using the Subaru Telescope atop Maunakea, researchers have identified 11 dwarf galaxies and two star-containing halos in the outer region of a large spiral galaxy 25 million light-years away from Earth. The findings, published ...

Cassini image mosaic: A farewell to Saturn

November 21, 2017

In a fitting farewell to the planet that had been its home for over 13 years, the Cassini spacecraft took one last, lingering look at Saturn and its splendid rings during the final leg of its journey and snapped a series ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Jul 31, 2011
"With its fiery red eye and a mass greater than all planets in the solar system combined, excluding the Sun..."
The sun. You know, that big planet... lol

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.