NASA’s Juno spacecraft just sent the outer-space equivalent of a “Wish You Were Here” postcard back to its scientists. Juno, which reached Jupiter’s orbit after a five-year, 1.8 billion–mile slog across the solar system on July 4, delivered its first picture back to NASA headquarters, taken this Sunday:
The picture comes courtesy of the JunoCam, which was clicked off during the spacecraft’s approach toward the planet. The image captures part of Jupiter, including that legendary Red Spot and a couple of white dots that are some of Jupiter’s moons, like Europa, which scientists have pinpointed as a possible place to search for life because of the oceans frozen beneath the moon’s crusts. But besides looking pretty cool, the photo is absolutely great news to NASA scientists: "This scene from JunoCam indicates it survived its first pass through Jupiter’s extreme radiation environment without any degradation and is ready to take on Jupiter," said Scott Bolton, Juno’s principal investigator.
Juno was still 2.7 million miles away from Jupiter when it snapped this photo. Scientists say they won’t get any planetary close-ups until after August 27, when the spacecraft makes its nearest approach — at 2,600 miles over the tops of the planet’s clouds — to the gas giant. “We can’t wait to see the first view of Jupiter’s poles,” Bolton also said. Besides trying to become an Instagram star, Juno will be amassing data that will help scientists study Jupiter’s atmosphere and how the planet was created.
Juno’s mission will last 20 months, and the craft will make 37 orbits around the planet (until it ends its life and potential photo career by crashing into Jupiter). According to the New York Times, Juno will continue to snapshot the poles, but starting on the craft’s fourth orbit in November, NASA will let the public weigh in via popular vote on what else they’d like to see from Jupiter. Sorry, Pluto, but looks like you’ve got some competition these days.