NASA spacecraft barreling toward Jupiter for July 4 meetup

June 16, 2016 by Alicia Chang
This artist's rendering made available by NASA/JPL-Caltech on July 7, 2015 shows the Juno spacecraft above Jupiter. The spacecraft is scheduled to arrive at the planet on July 4, 2016 to begin a nearly year-long study of the gas giant. (NASA/JPL-Caltech via AP)

A NASA spacecraft is bound for a Fourth of July encounter with Jupiter in the latest quest to study how the largest planet in the solar system formed and evolved.

As Juno approaches Jupiter's harsh radiation environment, it will fire its main engine to slow down and then slip into orbit around the planet.

"It's a one-shot deal," mission chief scientist Scott Bolton from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, said Thursday. "Everything is riding on it."

If all goes as planned, Juno will spend nearly a year circling Jupiter's poles and peering through clouds to scrutinize the planet's southern and northern lights, which are considered the strongest in the solar system.

"Jupiter is a planet on steroids. Everything about it is extreme," Bolton said during a briefing for reporters from NASA headquarters in Washington.

Since the 1970s, spacecraft have circled or zipped past Jupiter, sending back stunning views of the planet's signature Great Red Spot—A long-lived storm—and its numerous moons. The most extensive study came from the Galileo spacecraft, which dropped a probe on the surface. Galileo explored Jupiter and its moons for 14 years.

Unlike Earth, which is a rocky planet, Jupiter is a gas giant made up mostly of hydrogen and helium. Scientists still don't know whether Jupiter has a solid core or how much oxygen and water the planet has—information that could help unravel how Earth and the solar system came to be.

The trip to Jupiter—the fifth planet from the sun—took nearly five years, allowing Juno to loop around the inner solar system and use Earth as a gravitational slingshot to propel itself into deep space.

Previous missions to Jupiter have relied on nuclear power sources because of the distance from the sun. Juno is running on solar power, with three huge panels designed to face the sun during most of the mission. The wings are 29 feet long and 9 feet wide.

Juno will be about 500 million miles from the sun on the evening of July 4 when it prepares to enter orbit.

To protect against radiation, Juno's instruments are tucked inside a titanium vault. The spacecraft also carries a camera and scientists said the public will get a chance to decide what pictures to take.

After Juno completes its mission in 2018, it will plunge into Jupiter and burn up. Scientists planned this finale to eliminate the possibility it could smack into Europa, one of Jupiter's watery moons.

Explore further: Juno spacecraft crosses Jupiter / Sun gravitational boundary

Related Stories

NASA's Juno spacecraft burns for Jupiter

February 4, 2016

NASA's solar-powered Juno spacecraft successfully executed a maneuver to adjust its flight path today, Feb. 3. The maneuver refined the spacecraft's trajectory, helping set the stage for Juno's arrival at the solar system's ...

Jupiter returns as king of the night sky

March 8, 2016

Since January, there have not been any planets to see in the evening sky. Instead, all five bright planets have been visible in the early hours before sunrise. But now Jupiter, the king of the planets, is making a return ...

Juno spacecraft breaks solar power distance record

January 14, 2016

NASA's Juno mission to Jupiter has broken the record to become humanity's most distant solar-powered emissary. The milestone occurred at 11 a.m. PST (2 p.m. EST, 19:00 UTC) on Wednesday, Jan. 13, when Juno was about 493 million ...

Jupiter-bound spacecraft makes key maneuver

August 30, 2012

A Jupiter-bound spacecraft successfully fired its engine Thursday in the first of two crucial maneuvers intended to bring it toward Earth for a momentum-gathering fly-by.

NASA troubleshooting Jupiter-bound spacecraft

October 10, 2013

NASA says it'll spend the next several days diagnosing a problem with the Jupiter-bound Juno spacecraft that appeared after it buzzed past Earth to propel itself toward the giant planet.

Recommended for you

New evidence for existence of Planet Nine

May 21, 2018

A large international team of researchers has found what they are describing as more evidence of the existence of Planet Nine. In their paper posted on the arXiv preprint server, the group describes the behavior of a newly ...

Two bright high-redshift quasars discovered

May 21, 2018

Astronomers have detected two new bright quasars at a redshift of about 5.0. The newly found quasi-stellar objects (QSOs) are among the brightest high-redshift quasars known to date. The finding was presented May 9 in a paper ...

First interstellar immigrant discovered in the solar system

May 21, 2018

A new study has discovered the first known permanent immigrant to our Solar System. The asteroid, currently nestling in Jupiter's orbit, is the first known asteroid to have been captured from another star system. The work ...

2 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

big_hairy_jimbo
5 / 5 (3) Jun 17, 2016
"All these worlds are yours, except Europa"
Da Schneib
5 / 5 (3) Jun 17, 2016
Awesome. Jupiter is my favorite planet (other than, of course, Earth ;) ).

Juno is well instrumented and quite focused upon Jupiter's auroral activities. But most of the instruments are multi-purpose and will tell us a lot about Jupiter's spatial environment and even some about its internal structure. This should be a very interesting expedition and we should get a lot of data about the most important planet in our Solar System.

It's respectful both of the true possibility of life on Europa, and of Dr. Clark's memory, to avoid any possibility of an impact there.

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.