NASA’s Juno Mission Is Nearing Its Mid-Season Finale

NASA / JPL-Caltech / SwRI / MSSS / Gerald Eichstädt / Seán Doran

NASA’s Juno spacecraft has been orbiting Jupiter’s system for nearly 2.5 years. Originally slated to come to an end in mid-July after the space probe’s 13th flyby of the gas giant, the mission received a much-welcomed extension earlier this year.

As the Inquisitr previously reported, the spacecraft will keep on buzzing Jupiter until July 2021 after being allotted an extra 41 months of science time in the gas giant’s orbit. This recent change of schedule has boosted the number of planned flybys, increasing it to a total of 32.

The spacecraft is currently performing its 16th science pass over Jupiter and has already beamed back exquisite photos from its last two rendezvous with our solar system’s largest planet.

For instance, Juno spotted a “dragon’s eye” in the Jovian clouds while flying over the planet’s North Temperate Belt on October 29. At the time, the spacecraft was 4,400 miles from Jupiter’s gaseous shell, per a recent report from the Inquisitr.

A month earlier, during its 15th flyby of Jupiter, Juno captured a glorious photo of a “dolphin” swimming in Jupiter’s sky — as noted on Twitter by citizen scientist Sean Doran, who often processes Juno raw data into beautiful composite photos.

This 16th run around the solar system’s innermost gas giant is due to be concluded on December 21 at exactly 11:49:48 a.m. ET. Once this current Jupiter flyby is over, Juno will reach the halfway mark of its mission in Jupiter’s system, NASA announced earlier today.

“This will be the 16th science pass of the gas giant and will mark the solar-powered spacecraft’s halfway point in data collection during its prime mission,” NASA officials said in a statement.

This mid-season finale will bring the Juno space probe 3,140 miles above Jupiter’s cloud tops. During the final moments of this first half of the mission, the spacecraft will be zipping through Jupiter’s system at breakneck speeds of 128,802 miles per hour, detailed the space agency.

Mosaic image of Jupiter's north pole, created from Juno photos taken in the final hours of the spacecraft's Perijove-12 flyby on April 1.
Mosaic image of Jupiter's north pole, created from Juno photos taken in the final hours of the spacecraft's Perijove-12 flyby on April 1. Featured image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstädt/John Rogers

“With our 16th science flyby, we will have complete global coverage of Jupiter, albeit at coarse resolution, with polar passes separated by 22.5 degrees of longitude,” said Jack Connerney, Juno deputy principal investigator from the Space Research Corporation in Annapolis, Maryland.

“Over the second half of our prime mission — science flybys 17 through 32 — we will split the difference, flying exactly halfway between each previous orbit. This will provide coverage of the planet every 11.25 degrees of longitude, providing a more detailed picture of what makes the whole of Jupiter tick.”

What’s Next For The Juno Spacecraft

Launched a little over seven years ago – on August 5, 2011 – the Juno spacecraft traveled for five years to reach Jupiter’s orbit and officially began science operations on August 27, 2016, when the probe performed its very first flyby of the gas giant.

Throughout its mission, Juno has scrutinized this enthralling planet with its Stellar Reference Unit (SRU) and its JunoCam, both instruments acquiring vital data for the study of Jupiter and its system.

On the one hand, the SRU recorded not only crucial navigation data but also additional details about Jupiter’s rings and radiation belts. On the other hand, the JunoCam obtained unparalleled views of Jupiter’s unique circumpolar cyclones and high-altitude hazes, while also capturing the majesty of the iconic Great Red Spot — a powerful hurricane that has been raging over the planet’s surface for more than 350 years.

Image of Jupiter's northern circumpolar cyclones, captured by Juno on September 6, during the spacecraft's 15th flyby of the gas giant.
Image of Jupiter's northern circumpolar cyclones, captured by Juno on September 6, during the spacecraft's 15th flyby of the gas giant.Featured image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstädt

“We have already rewritten the textbooks on how Jupiter’s atmosphere works, and on the complexity and asymmetry of its magnetic field,” said principal Juno investigator Scott Bolton, a scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas.

“The second half should provide the detail that we can use to refine our understanding of the depth of Jupiter’s zonal winds, the generation of its magnetic field, and the structure and evolution of its interior.”