If you’re a fan of NASA’s Juno spacecraft and its rather wonderful images of Jupiter, then we’ve got some good news for you. Because it looks like the mission will be extended for another few years.
Juno has been in orbit around Jupiter since 2016, spending the last two years making more than a dozen daring dives over the poles of the gas giant. In so doing it has returned stunning images and vast amounts of data about Jupiter.
When the mission was first designed, NASA had planned to place Juno on a 14-day orbit of Jupiter, having it conduct 37 orbits up to February 2018 before being purposefully destroyed in the atmosphere of the planet. A valve issue, however, has kept it stuck in a wider 53-day orbit, pushing the mission out to July 2018.
Now it looks like NASA has decided to extend the mission even further. According to Dave Mosher writing for Business Insider, sources have revealed the $1 billion mission will continue until July 2021, with scientific work continuing until September 2022. NASA, for its part, has already planned out the orbits for such an extension.
“The Juno mission leaders received a memo authorizing the extension in mid-May, but NASA has not yet publicly announced its decision,” Mosher wrote, citing an unnamed source.
One of the main goals for the mission is to map the entirety of Jupiter. To do so requires a total of 32 close passes, known as perijoves. But the valve issue meant that only 14 of 32 could be completed by July 2018. This extension will allow for all 32 to be completed.
And there’s even a chance the mission could continue for longer than that. Scott Bolton, the principal investigator on NASA’s Juno mission, previously told IFLScience that the team had not ruled out changing the orbit for an extension beyond 2022, perhaps to investigate objects of interest like Europa.
In the original mission design, it’s thought Juno’s proximity to the planet would cause the spacecraft issues, as the radiation from Jupiter is intense and damaging. Staying in this wider orbit however, the spacecraft spends more time outside Jupiter’s harshest radiation, and thus may survive for longer than expected.
When the mission does finally come to an end, Juno will be purposefully slammed into the atmosphere of Jupiter, where it will be destroyed. This same fate befell other probes, like Cassini at Saturn and Galileo at Jupiter, to prevent them hitting one of the potentially life-harboring moons like Enceladus or Europa.
For Juno, though, it looks like that death dive just got a little bit further away. We have asked NASA to confirm the extension, but have yet to receive a comment. (Update, it's now been confirmed by NASA)