Old Space Probes Fade, New Probes Scream Into View

As our old friends Rosetta and New Horizons head out of the Solar System, and Dawn continues to image Ceres, we have a new spacecraft to watch: Juno arrived at Jupiter this week. (Some PR genius at NASA managed to fiddle the trajectory to arrive on the US Independence Day holiday—give that person a cookie!)

Juno is an interesting and ambitions mission, because it aims to get close to Jupiter, inside the intense radiation and magnetic fields. The spacecraft and instruments had to be really, really rugged and radiation hardened. The spacecraft has entered an elliptical polar orbit, which is designed to swoop in via the reduced radiation, and back out to a “cooler” distance.

Animation of Juno 14-day orbits starting in late 2016. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Assuming that the spacecraft and instruments survive, which is far from certain, Juno will collect some of the first data about the structure, composition, and dynamics of Jupiter. Jupiter is huge, darn near a star, and it has been around since the solar system condensed. So we will get some more insight into the early solar system, including more information about where the water we find everywhere came from.

Fingers crossed, Juno will do 37 orbits over the next 20 months. When the mission is over, the spacecraft will be deliberately crashed into Jupiter. Unlike Rosetta’s planned crash into 67P/CG, which will collect data, Juno’s dive is intended to destroy any possible biological contamination from Earth. This precaution recognizes the possibility of habitable (if not necessarily inhabited) moons in the area. Future expeditions do not want to find “life” on Europa that somehow managed to ride there on Juno.   However unlikely this scenario, Juno will burn up to avert it.

Let’s stay tuned!


Space Saturday

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