NASA's Spacecraft Juno Begins Orbit Of Jupiter

Five years and hundreds of millions of miles later, Juno is in orbit.
NASA’s solar-powered Juno spacecraft reached Jupiter on July 4, 2016.
NASA’s solar-powered Juno spacecraft reached Jupiter on July 4, 2016.
Credit: NASA

UPDATE: 11:54 p.m. ET -- "Welcome to Jupiter!"

After a tense, 35-minute engine burn, NASA's Juno spacecraft successfully began its orbit of Jupiter late Monday evening, the pivotal moment of the space agency's five-year long venture to reach the planet.

Hundreds of millions of miles away, the $1.1 billion mission all hung on a single 35-minute engine burn -- a maneuver that slowed the spacecraft during its final approach and allowed the craft to sink into orbit around the solar system's largest planet.

"Jupiter is spectacular from afar and will be absolutely breathtaking from close up," Scott Bolton, principal investigator of Juno from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, said in a statement ahead of Monday night's events.

The solar-powered spacecraft entered the gas giant's dangerous orbit Monday, just seconds behind schedule, to raucous applause from those gathered at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

NASA reported less than an hour later that Juno had turned its solar panels towards the sun for power, the last crucial move undertaken during the initial phase of the orbit.

The 35-minute engine burn, which began at 11:18 p.m. EST, slowed Juno by 1,212 mph, enough so it could be captured by the planet's gravitational pull. Still, Juno was traveling some 130,000 mph before it reached Jupiter.

"We've only got one shot," Guy Beutelschies, director of space exploration systems at Lockheed Martin, the company that built and operates Juno, told NPR. "If we miss this flyby, we're assuming the mission's over."

But the Fourth of July arrival proved successful.

Now, Juno will continue a lengthy dance with Jupiter, circling the giant planet 37 times over a 20-month period and swinging as close as 2,600 miles of the planet's cloud tops, NASA said. It will mark the first time a spacecraft has orbited Jupiter's poles, NASA added, "providing new answers to ongoing mysteries about the planet’s core, composition and magnetic fields."

The mission is also expected to provide scientists with a better understanding of our solar system as a whole.

"It just so happens, deep inside this body are the secrets we're after," a voice-over says in the NASA video below. "Secrets about our early solar system."

The heavily armored spacecraft has been built to withstand the planet's extreme, radiation-rich environment. But the costly mission is full of unknowns.

"When you sail into terra incognita, that is always going to make you sit on the edge of your seat, because you don’t really know for sure what you’re facing," Heidi Becker of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory told National Geographic.

Juno is expected to begin scientific observations following a final engine burn on Oct. 19, after a lengthy phase in which the spacecraft will be captured in the planet’s orbit and all scientific instruments will be turned on. The spacecraft is set to meet a fiery death when it burns up in Jupiter's atmosphere in February 2018.

For more information about the Juno mission, visit its NASA page.

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