NASA officials are being extremely cautious about Juno, the probe they're using to remotely explore Jupiter, and, all things considered, that seems like a good idea.
Last week, NASA officials announced they were delaying putting the spacecraft into shorter orbit because Juno's main engine was acting up. Instead they decided to shift the operation to December 11, based on the hope that the team will be able to figure out what's wrong with the engine over the coming months.
NASA's Juno probe, a 400-pound titanium box strapped to a 66-foot-long solar panel, arrived in Jupiter's orbit to great fanfare — and some really nice press for the federal space agency — back in July. Over the course of a year, the probe is slated to do all kinds of research on what lies beneath the roiling, gaseous thunder clouds that encapsulate Jupiter. Juno is supposed to be mapping the entire surface of the planet while nine scientific instruments work to dig in and begin to understand the planet's interior makeup and powerful magnetic field.
But none of the more in-depth research can happen if Juno doesn't get set up in the perfect orbiting position to collect all of that scientific data.
Juno started out in a highly elliptical orbit that takes 53 days to complete, but the probe was supposed to ignite the main engine and get into a 14-day orbit closer to the planet to start doing the more involved data collection. However, since some parts of the main engine aren't working entirely as they're supposed to — specifically, the helium check valves that help the main engine fire were acting up during a command sequence earlier this month — NASA officials decided to hold off on firing up the probe.
"The valves should have opened in a few seconds, but it took several minutes," Rick Nybakken, Juno’s project manager, said in a statement. "We need to better understand this issue before moving forward with a burn of the main engine."
Their caution is completely understandable. NASA has a lot riding on this mission. For one thing, it costs more than $1 billion, which is a pretty nice chunk of change for the agency that is always subject to the whims of the White House and Congress for funding.
On top of that, it took Juno five years to reach Jupiter, and the spacecraft is supposed to spend more than 30 weeks studying the planet before it takes a deep dive into the planet's atmosphere, disintegrating as it makes the plunge. Considering the time and effort it took to get the probe to Jupiter, and the trove of information it is expected to collect, it would be a pretty big deal if none of that worked out because the spacecraft exploded prematurely.
Plus, NASA needs all of the positive publicity it can get. The space agency lives or dies based on how much political support there is for its efforts. Everybody — the President and Congress — has to be behind the space agency for it to really get things done.
When President John F. Kennedy announced we were going to the moon, the mission was popular but we would never have actually gotten to watch Neil Armstrong set foot on the lunar surface if the following presidents and Congress hadn't stayed dedicated to making it happen. And as public and political interest in space exploration waxed and waned over the following decades, the funding for the space program did too.
Right now, the view of NASA is fairly positive. This is partly because NASA has gotten extremely social-media-savvy — everyone loves the NASA Instagram feed, and having retired astronaut Scott Kelly chronicle his just-under-a-year-long stint on the International Space Station was a spark of genius. But it's also because between planning trips to lasso an asteroid and to go to Mars and, you know, getting spectacular pictures of Jupiter, NASA has been doing a lot to get people — and thus the politicians who the people elect — more into space exploration.
And this is partly because President Barack Obama has seemed to get more interested in the whole NASA thing. When Obama first took office in 2008, he let the shuttle program end at the same time he canceled the Constellation program that was supposed to take astronauts back to the moon.
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At that point, the Great Recession was on, money was tight and Obama just didn't seem that interested in space exploration. But over the past few years, the president has started talking about space and has committed the United States to sending astronauts to Mars by the 2030s.
But the trick is, a new president will be taking over come January and that will mean a new way of looking at the space program. Whether it's Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump (though let's face it, based on the polls it's most likely going to be Clinton), the one thing we know is that it's a lot easier to sign off on funding space exploration if people are feeling good about NASA.
People are way more likely to feel good about NASA if the agency is sending out cool pictures of Jupiter versus struggling to explain why a very expensive space probe was obliterated.
So yeah, Juno is acting up and NASA is being slow and deliberative as it sorts out what's wrong, but considering what could be at stake, can you blame the agency?