NASA’s Juno probe was originally supposed to meet a similar fate this year, following in the footsteps of the Cassini spacecraft, which crash-landed into Saturn last year, almost two decades after its launch. But reports are suggesting that the probe might remain on Jupiter for at least another three years, allowing NASA to keep learning about our solar system’s largest planet.
According to a report from Business Insider, NASA had plans to end the Juno mission “sometime after July 2018,” having the probe crash-land into Jupiter much like Cassini did several months ago. This was reportedly because NASA doesn’t want Juno to accidentally crash into Jupiter’s moon Europa, which scientists believe might be capable of supporting extraterrestrial life. Should Juno land in Europa’s vast ocean, which is believed to have twice as much water as Earth does, that could contaminate the ocean with microbes from our planet.
Although the above possibility is a concern for Juno team members, sources connected to NASA told Business Insider that the Juno mission won’t be ending this year after all, as the probe will continue exploring Jupiter until July 2021 at the earliest, with scientific work continuing through September 2022. The report added that the extension is an important one for the Juno team, as the probe continues mapping Jupiter on a piecemeal basis, using instruments that gather data on the planet’s gravitational field, among other types of vital information.
There are, however, some issues with Juno’s propulsion system that is causing the mapping process to go slower than expected. If the probe spends too much time exposed to Jupiter’s radiation field, that could put its instruments at risk of damage. That’s why Juno takes an elliptical path when orbiting the gas giant, allowing the spacecraft to get a good view from its cloud tops, but ensuring that it remains mostly safe from harmful radiation.
“During a thorough review, we looked at multiple scenarios that would place Juno in a shorter-period orbit, but there was concern that another main engine burn could result in a less-than-desirable orbit,” read a February 2017 statement from Juno project manager Rick Nybakken, where he explained why his team would not be able to speed up the spacecraft’s orbits.
“The bottom line is a burn represented a risk to completion of Juno’s science objectives.”
With NASA reportedly close to officially announcing whether the Juno mission will be extended another three years or not, that could buy the probe more time to reach its mapping objectives. That also means more time to gather science results from Jupiter, which, per a recent NASA news release, include learning more about the gas giant’s chaotic weather conditions, particularly the cyclones that were shown to be “enduring atmospheric features” around its north and south poles.