After five years of traveling through deep space, NASA's Juno spacecraft has arrived in orbit around Jupiter, the oldest, largest planet in our solar system, NASA scientists confirmed on Monday night.
If everything goes well, Juno, a 400-pound titanium box strapped to a 66-foot-long solar panel, will dig up more information about the massive gas giant than we've ever had access to before, giving NASA scientists and the rest of us a peek at the roiling, poisonous thunder clouds that lie beneath the planet's upper atmosphere.
At 9:30 p.m., NASA started broadcasting from mission control. Although the broadcast was live, the video stream was always a little behind because it takes about 48 minutes for the signal to travel 534 million miles to the Deep Space Network Antenna, in Goldstone, California.
The most challenging part of the task of getting Juno safely into Jupiter's orbit was the engine burn. The NASA team overseeing the probe announced the burn had started at 10:18 p.m.. A little after midnight, the burn was completed and cheering broke out in both NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in California and at the Lockheed Martin control room in Colorado, according to the Washington Post.
“This is the one time I don’t mind being stuck in a windowless room on the night of the fourth of July,” principal investigator Scott Bolton, of the Southwest Research Institute, said in a release. “The mission team did great. The spacecraft did great. We are looking great. It’s a great day.”
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Rick Nybakken, Juno’s project manager, ripped up the mission's in-case-anything-and-everything-goes-wrong contingency plan, the Post reported. “Tonight in tones, Juno sang to us,” he said. “And it was a song of perfection.”
For now NASA officials have only those tones to work with. It will take a few days to get real data back that Juno collected from establishing orbit. Then NASA won't get start getting large amounts of data until about August.
Juno will subsequently circle around the planet, moving gradually closer until it sets itself up in October to be in the perfect orbiting position to collect scientific data the following month. In November the probe is scheduled to kick off a 33-week series of two-week flybys when most of the big research will be conducted.
About a year later, Juno will take the plunge into Jupiter's atmosphere, where its atoms will be scattered away, just like those of Galileo before it. But that's more than a year away. Right now the focus is on celebrating these successful first steps and gearing up for the work to come. If all goes well, we're going to learn a lot about the giant gas planet.