NASA’s unscrewed robotic Juno spacecraft will attempt to enter Jupiter’s orbit Monday with a dangerous breaking maneuver that could send it shooting off into deep space.
The Juno spacecraft has been hurtling towards Jupiter for five years, but now it needs to slow down with a 35-minute engine burn that will decrease its speed by a whopping 1,212 miles per hour.
To reach the gas giant, the Juno probe has been barreling through space at 215 times the speed of sound, but it now must execute a precise burn to enter Jupiter’s orbit, NASA Mission Investigator Scott Bolton told CNN.
“We are ready. The science team is incredibly excited to be arriving at Jupiter.”
If Juno doesn’t execute the orbital insertion burn precisely, the $1.13 billion spacecraft will skip off Jupiter’s atmosphere and go sailing off into deep space, where it will be lost forever, Juno Project Manager Rick Nybakken told BBC News.
“What we’re targeting is a space that’s tens of km wide. We’re going to hit that within 1.2 seconds after a journey of [2.8 billion km]. That tells you just how good our navigation team is.”
Instead of watching fireworks Monday evening, NASA engineers will be glued to their computer screens as they watch the Juno probe attempt to insert itself into Jupiter’s orbit, and you can too.
Jupiter is so far from the sun that messages take 48 minutes to cross the expanse in one direction, so all NASA engineers can do is sit and watch as the football field-sized probe attempts to navigate itself correctly.
If everything goes according to plan, the robotic Juno probe will spend the next 18 months circling Jupiter 37 times as it studies the planet’s massive gravitational and magnetic fields, Juno Project Manager Rick Nybakken told CNN.
“Some of the challenges are we are going into the most treacherous place in the entire solar system, radiation fields that are really intense.”
Juno will spend the next year and a half dodging the worst of Jupiter’s radiation belts and NASA engineers hope the craft’s shielded electronic center will help it survive the planet’s dangerous magnetic fields.
NASA researchers will finally be able to determine whether Jupiter has a solid core or is composed entirely of gas. Scientists will also be able to study Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, a massive storm that has raged for hundreds of years.
Scientists think Jupiter was the first planet to form in our solar system, and they hope to discover more about Earth’s early history by studying the massive gas giant, Bolton told BBC News.
“It is the king of our Solar System. Its zones and belts, its Great Red Spot, its incredible turbulent atmosphere – we’ve known it for many, many years. It’s a gorgeous planet but what Juno is about is looking beneath that surface. We’ve got to go down and look at what’s inside.”
Although the robotic Juno probe is unmanned, it does have a crew of sorts. Three 1.5-inch aluminum Lego figures are onboard the spacecraft and have been bearing witness to the probes amazing journey.
The tiny figures represent 17th-century Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei, who discovered Jupiter’s four largest moons, the Roman god Jupiter, and the deity’s wife Juno, according to the Daily Mail.
“Of course, the minifigure Galileo has his telescope with him on the journey.”
The three tiny figures are on a suicide mission and will crash into Jupiter when’s Juno’s mission is completed on February 20, 2018.
Will you be watching the Juno probe enter Jupiter’s orbit after 4th of July fireworks?
[Photo by David McNew/Getty Images]