The NASA spacecraft known as “Juno” is scheduled for a 4th of July encounter with Jupiter in the latest step to study the largest planet in our solar system.
As Juno approaches the extreme radiation of Jupiter’s environment, it will finally fire its main engine to slow down and fall into orbit around the planet.
“It’s a one-shot deal,” says mission chief scientist Scott Bolton from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “Everything is riding on it.”
If all goes according to plan, Juno will spend nearly a year circling Jupiter’s poles and scanning through clouds to analyze 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 shot past Jupiter, sending back stunning images of the planet’s signature Great Red Spot and its numerous moons. The most extensive data came from the Galileo spacecraft, which dropped a probe on the surface. Galileo explored Jupiter and its moons for 14 years.
Jupiter is a gas giant made up mostly of hydrogen and helium. Scientists still don’t know if Jupiter has a solid core or how much oxygen and water the planet has, which is information that could help unravel how Earth and the solar system were formed.
The trip to Jupiter took nearly five years, allowing Juno to loop around the inner solar system and use Earth as a gravitational slingshot to shoot itself into deep space.
Previous missions to Jupiter have relied on nuclear power 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 an impressive 29 feet long and 9 feet wide. To protect against radiation, Juno’s instruments are secured inside a titanium vault.
Juno will be about 500 million miles from the sun on the evening of July 4th when it prepares to enter orbit.
After Juno completes its mission in 2018, it will plunge into Jupiter’s atmosphere and burn up. Scientists planned this finale to eliminate the possibility it could crash onto Europa, one of Jupiter’s watery moons.