NASA’s Juno probe has been studying Jupiter for almost two years, but the mission has not gone exactly to plan. It’s taking Juno longer than NASA expected to map the gas giant, and operations were scheduled to cease this summer. Luckily, NASA has secured an additional $1 billion in funding to extend the mission for at least three more years.
Juno arrived in the Jovian system back in July 2016 after launching from Earth in 2011. NASA started Juno off in a nice, leisurely 53-day highly eccentric orbit of Jupiter. Since the planet has intense radiation belts that can fry delicate internal components, mission managers wanted the probe to spend as little time as possible in close proximity to it. Originally, NASA intended to fire up Juno’s engines and shorten the orbit to just 14 days. However, that didn’t work out.
As NASA prepared to tighten Juno’s orbit, the team detected potential issues with the probe’s engines. Rather than risk damage that could cripple the probe, NASA opted to leave Juno in its higher orbit. That ensured Juno would remain operational, but it also introduced a considerable delay in the primary science mission. Juno is in a polar orbit, so each time it swoops around Jupiter, it sees a different part of the planet up close. The longer orbit means a roughly four-fold increase in the amount of time it will take to map all of Jupiter.
Juno is destined to crash into Jupiter at the end of its mission, and that was supposed to happen this summer. With only a fraction of the science mission complete, the agency needed a reprieve. NASA was authorized to spend the additional money last month, but has only now confirmed publicly that Juno has been saved.
The extension means Juno can continue operating through September 2021. That’s enough time to finish all the mission’s critical science objectives. So, we can expect a lot more awesome science to come out of Juno over the next few years. We’ve already learned about how Jupiter’s polar vortices operate and how deep the Great Red Spot goes. Imagine what we’ll learn in the next three years.
When the time does come to retire Juno, NASA will still fly it into Jupiter. This will ensure it doesn’t one day crash on one of Jupiter’s moons, some of which could host alien life. We’ll need to send other missions to look into that.
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