After a nearly five-year, 1.74 billion mile voyage, NASA’s Juno spacecraft slipped into an elliptical orbit around Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system on the 4th of July. The Space probe’s current orbit takes 53 days, part of it far outside the orbits of most of Jupiter’s moons, part deep into its radiation belt at a distance of just over 2,600 miles.

Because Jupiter is so far away from Earth, radio signals take about 45 minutes to travel to Juno. That meant that the news of the success of the sequence of events that had to happen to put the space probe into orbit did not reach NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory until long after they had occurred.

Had a failure happened at any step of the way, nothing the space agency could do would have fixed the problem.

Fortunately, everything went according to plan. Juno oriented itself so that its main rocket engine could fire while increasing its spin to stabilize it, which put the spacecraft on battery power. The engine fired at just the right time for 35 minutes, slowing Juno down just enough to allow it to be captured by Jupiter’s gravity. Then the main engine cut off and the spacecraft reoriented itself so that its massive solar panels caught the dim sunlight again, achieving full power, while it decreased its spin. Even though lots of anxiety permeated the air at JPL, NASA made the difficult maneuvers seem easy.

Juno will make two 53 day orbits of Jupiter before another burn of the main engine is planned to change the orbit to 14 days. Juno will begin a 20-month science phase. It will probe the planet’s atmosphere, internal structure, auroras, and magnetosphere. Thus scientists hope to ascertain how the gas giants were formed, obtaining insights into the beginning of the solar system, as well as how planets like Jupiter behave currently.

Juno is the second spacecraft to have orbited Jupiter. The Galileo orbited Jupiter in the 1990s and spent eight years exploring that world and its system of moons. NASA plans to send a probe to Jupiter’s moon Europa, an icebound world that is thought to have a warm water ocean and perhaps life, in the next decade.

The Europa mission will likely include the first attempt to land on a celestial body beyond Mars and the asteroid belt.

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