This coming Monday, one of the most exciting space missions in recent history is going to begin. That’s when, for only the second time ever, a spacecraft is going to enter orbit around Jupiter. And this time, we’ll learn more about the largest planet of our Solar System than ever before.
The spacecraft, NASA’s Juno, has understandably got astronomers and scientists alike abuzz with excitement. It was launched on August 5, 2011, and since then has undertaken a five-year journey around the Solar System, including a flyby of Earth for a gravitational boost, to make it to the gas giant. It is the first spacecraft to do so since NASA’s Galileo spacecraft, which orbited Jupiter from 1995 to 2003.
“We’ve been waiting many years for our spacecraft to get there,” Jared Espley, Juno program scientist at NASA, told IFLScience. “We’re there to understand part of the origins of the Solar System, and that has implications for the origins of our own planet.
“It’s been a long time coming, and I’m super excited.”
The dramatic trailer above explains the Juno mission
Juno is immediately noticeable for its shape, which has three long arms laden with solar panels, each stretching 9 meters (30 feet). These provide all the power for Juno; it is entirely solar-powered, the first spacecraft to do this at such a great distance from Earth. Other previous spacecraft that have explored the outer Solar System have used nuclear-based power to keep their juices flowing.
Having travelled 2.8 billion kilometers (1.7 billion miles), the culmination of this journey comes on July 4, Independence Day in the US, just before midnight EDT (5am BST). Juno will then enter into a wide, sweeping orbit around Jupiter, taking it between a distance of 3 million kilometers (2 million miles) and 5,000 kilometers (3,000 miles) from the surface, the closest any spacecraft has ever been, to help it avoid Jupiter’s deadly radiation. It will make 37 flybys of Jupiter in this orbit to collect all its data over the course of 20 months.
Its wide orbit will help mitigate some of the effects of the radiation, while its key instruments are encased in a titanium vault to keep them as safe as possible. The solar panels, though, are expected to lose a few percent of their efficiency over the course of the mission.