If you are like me, you are a huge space nerd and the study of planets in our solar system is incredibly fascinating. Just the mere thought that we have man-made objects acting as our eyes and ears all over the solar system just fills me with a sense of wonder and curiosity that is pretty hard to put into words. When NASA landed the Curiosity Rover on Mars, for example, I was the guy jumping up and down and screaming like a child with all the JPL (the Jet Propulsion Laboratory) guys that we’ve seen in the celebratory videos. Well, NASA and the JPL just entered the most exciting phase of their latest venture: the Juno spacecraft has successfully achieved orbit around the largest planet in our solar system, Jupiter.
For those not in the know, here is a brief history of Juno’s adventures thus far. The orbital spacecraft launched August 5th, 2011, embarking on its five year journey from Earth to the King of Planets. From here it wasn’t just a straight shot to Jupiter. To get the craft from Earth to Jupiter is not an easy process and space travel between planetary systems is never just a straight line. Over the course of roughly the next year, Juno performed deep space maneuvers that took it quite a bit beyond the orbit of Mars and back home again. Strange right?
The reason for this brief return visit was essentially to use the Earth as a slingshot to send the craft on its final trajectory toward Jupiter. I’m no scientist, but my understanding is that the closer Juno got returning to Earth, the more velocity it started to gain. This is a principle of rotation mechanics in general. At its closest point to Earth, our planet’s gravity was pulling on Juno the strongest and a clever usage of onboard propulsion provided the force required to alter Juno’s orbit at just the right time. Juno was flung away at an even greater velocity and adjusted itself, with assistance from very smart scientists, to perfectly get caught in Jupiter’s gravity field years later. (for more information and a way better description, check out the JPL’s “A Gravity Assist Primer”)
On the United States of America’s celebration of Independence (July 4th), Juno successfully entered orbit of the Great Eye’d planet.
Juno has a ton of instruments on board to send back data to NASA on Earth. According to JPL’s Juno website, “Juno’s primary goal is to reveal the story of Jupiter’s formation and evolution.” Juno will send data on Jupiter’s gravity, magnetic fields, atmospheric dynamics and composition, among other things, for a total of twenty long months at which point it will make a triumphant entry into the giant planet to be torn and crushed apart by searing winds and atmospheric pressure.
What is your favorite NASA mission? Let us know before you go!