NASA Rejoices as Juno Sucessfully Swings Around Jupiter—Close Up Images in 7 Weeks

July 5, 2016 Updated: October 5, 2018

Hand shakes, high-fives, and hugs amid cheers and applause filled the NASA mission control room as the confirmation came in—Juno spacecraft successfully entered the orbit around Jupiter.

After five years of waiting, the scientists received one of the sweetest satisfactions of the profession—their calculations were correct. The precisely timed, 308-second burst from the main engine burn slowed the craft enough to be captured by the mighty gravity field of the fiery gas giant.

“The more you know about the mission you know just how tricky this was. And to have it be flawless—I really can’t put it into words,” said Diane Brown, Juno program executive, during a press briefing on Monday night, broadcasted by Ustream.

Approaching Jupiter can be treacherous. The planet spins 28 times faster than Earth—over 28,000 miles per hour. Any rock that get caught in the planet’s powerful gravity will swirl around at an incredible speed and carry certain doom if it hits Juno. Also, Jupiter has an incredibly strong magnetic field that Juno will have to withstand—most of its instruments are protected with about half-inch thick titanium shielding.

It was quite a journey for the craft: 900 people worked to launch the $1.1 billion mission in 2011. Then, about 300 people operated the craft on its 1.7-billion-mile journey through the Solar System. When the craft finally arrived at the orange planet, the crew was able to time the slow-down engine burn with only one second deviation from schedule, said Rick Nybakken, Juno Project Manager, giving a shout out to the team.

As a special surprise, the scientists showed a clip that Juno took on its approach to Jupiter showing Jupiter’s moons orbiting the planet.

While before we only could imagine how such a system looks like, this time we can actually see it, said Scott Bolton, Juno principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute.

“We’ll actually see true harmony in nature. This is what it’s about. This is what Jupiter and its moons look like. This is what our solar system looks like if you were to move out. It’s what the galaxy looks like. It’s what the atoms look like. It’s harmony at every scale. And so we finally are touching out to the cosmos.”

The craft didn’t capture any data during the first swing around the planet and by Tuesday morning it was already over 500,000 miles away from Jupiter on its highly elliptical orbit. That means the first batch of close up pictures can be expected when Juno flies by the planet again in about 53 days.

Juno will first make two 53-day orbits and then maneuver to a 14-day orbit where it will stay for about year and a half. In total, the craft is expected to orbit the planet 37 times. Then it will be disposed of by flying into the planet, where it will disintegrate.

Some things we should learn from Juno include: How much water is in Jupiter’s atmosphere, whether it has a solid core, and whats going on deep inside its clouds.

Follow Petr on Twitter: @petrsvab