PASADENA, CALIF. — NASA says it has received a signal from 540 million miles across the solar system, confirming its Juno spacecraft has successfully started orbiting Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system.
“Welcome to Jupiter!” flashed on screens at mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, Pasadena, Calif. The Juno team cheered and hugged.
“This is phenomenal,” said Geoff Yoder, acting administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. The probe had to conduct a tricky maneuver to slow down enough to allow it to be pulled into orbit: It fired its main engine for 35 minutes, effectively hitting the brakes to slow the spacecraft by about 1,212 miles per hour (542 meters per second).
“NASA did it again,” said Scott Bolton, Juno principal investigator. “We’re there, we’re in orbit. We conquered Jupiter.”
“Through tones Juno sang to us and it was a song of perfection,” said Rick Nybakken, Juno Project Manager, referring to the audio signal the probe sent to indicate it was in orbit.
Juno was launched nearly five years ago on a mission to study Jupiter’s composition and evolution. It’s the first spacecraft to orbit Jupiter since Galileo. Galileo was deliberately crashed into Jupiter on Sept. 21, 2003, to protect one of its discoveries — a possible ocean beneath Jupiter’s moon Europa.
“Preliminary looks are that the spacecraft is performing well ,” said Guy Beutelschies, Director of Interplanetary Missions at Lockheed Martin Space Systems, the company that built the spacecraft.
The largest planet in our solar system, Jupiter is a huge ball of gas 11 times wider than Earth and 300 times more massive than our planet. Researchers think it was the first planet to form and that it holds clues to how the solar system evolved. Spacecraft have been to Jupiter before. But scientists still are puzzled by the gas giant. What’s going on under Jupiter’s dense clouds? Does it have a solid core? How much water is in its atmosphere? And how deep are those colorful bands and that mysterious giant red spot?
Juno will help answer those questions by looking at Jupiter’s interior. The spacecraft will orbit the poles and try to dodge the planet’s most hazardous radiation belts. To protect the spacecraft from the radiation, Juno has a shielded electronics vault. At a press conference following the probe’s successful arrival in orbit around Jupiter, NASA showed a video shot by Juno on its approach of Jupiter’s moons traveling around the planet, capturing for the first time the movement of objects around a celestial body.
Juno is a spinning, robotic probe as wide as a basketball court. It will circle Jupiter 37 times for 20 months, diving down to about 2,600 miles (4,100 kilometers) above the planet’s dense clouds. The seven science instruments on board will study Jupiter’s auroras and help scientists better understand the planet’s origins, structure, atmosphere and magnetosphere. An onboard color camera called JunoCam will take “spectacular close-up, color images” of Jupiter, according to NASA. The space agency is asking the public to help decide where to point the camera.
The Juno mission ends on Feb. 20, 2018, when Juno is expected to crash into Jupiter.