NASA’s Juno Spacecraft Celebrates America’s Birthday in Jupiter’s Orbit

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Juno's front-row seat to Jupiter's northern lights.

Juno, a NASA spacecraft, successfully reached Jupiter’s orbit after a five-year, 1.8 billion-mile journey across the solar system. 

Jubilant NASA scientists cheered and celebrated (and probably breathed a sigh of relief) after Juno completed a 35-minute engine burn and entered the gas giant’s orbit shortly before midnight on July 4. 

This is the one time I don’t mind being stuck in a windowless room on the night of the Fourth of July,” said Scott Bolton, Juno’s principal investigator. “The mission team did great. The spacecraft did great. We are looking great. It’s a great day.”

Here’s a look at Juno’s approach to Jupiter:

Juno had to withstand the planet’s serious radiation and dust rings as it made its way into Jupiter’s orbit. Now that it’s arrived without a hitch, Juno will orbit the planet for the next 20 months with a mission to collect data to help scientists figure out how Jupiter formed and grew into the massive, gaseous planet that’s the largest in our solar system. One of the big questions scientists wish to answer: Does Jupiter have a rocky, solid core? Galileo, the only other spacecraft to reach Jupiter in the 1990s, gathered data about Jupiter’s atmosphere and moons (including Europa, which showed signs of having an ocean beneath its frozen crust), but did not have the technical capabilities to probe past Jupiter’s atmosphere.

Juno will kick off its Jupiter jaunt with a 53-day orbit. Per the New York Times:

Its scientific instruments, which had been turned off for the arrival at Jupiter, will be turned back on in two days. On Aug. 27, it will swing back for its first good close-up look at Jupiter.

Juno will fire its engine again on Oct. 19 to move to a 14-day orbit, when the science measurements begin in earnest.

Scientists probably won’t get any images from Juno until August, when the spacecraft gets closer to the planet. The spacecraft’s orbits (there will be 37) will look something like this: 

Also along for the trek: these Lego explorers.

Unfortunately, those guys and the Juno spacecraft itself punched a one-way ticket. In February 2018, the spacecraft will make its 37th orbit and then crash and combust in Jupiter’s atmosphere, though earthling scientists expect it to deliver a trove of data before that date.