Last week, NASA’s Juno spacecraft pulled off an incredible feat: It entered orbit around Jupiter. This sounds simple, but it was really like threading a needle through an impossibly dense minefield. Jupiter is surrounded by powerful, circuitry-destroying radiation. To survive, Juno had to sneak into orbit at a small opening near the poles, where the magnetism is weakest.
Now Juno is making its first revolution around the planet, and it has sent NASA the first visible light photo from its mission. In it, you can clearly see the giant gas planet, as well as three of its moons, Io, Europa, and Ganymede.
"This scene from JunoCam indicates it survived its first pass through Jupiter's extreme radiation environment without any degradation and is ready to take on Jupiter," NASA’s Scott Bolton, the principal investigator on the mission, said in a press statement.
JunoCam is the spacecraft’s visible light camera. And NASA promises more pictures as Juno completes this orbit around the planet.
To sneak past the radiation to get the shot, Juno had to be put on a highly eccentric (elliptical) orbit.
Here’s an animation of what that looks like from Juno’s perspective. It’s dizzying.
The Juno mission is about more than pretty pictures
Even though Jupiter is the largest planet in the solar system, scientists know remarkably little about it.
Basic questions about the planet they’d like to answer include:
- Does Jupiter have a solid core?
- How does it generate such extreme levels of radiation?
- How did Jupiter form and evolve?
Juno is equipped with nine scientific instruments, including sensors that can measure gravity, probe deep into Jupiter’s atmosphere, and test the planet’s magnetic fields, as well as various cameras to capture the planet across a range of the electromagnetic spectrum.
Jupiter is made up of the same basic ingredients as the sun — mainly hydrogen and helium. Scientists are hoping a close-up investigation of its surface can reveal some history of the origin of our solar system. What’s more, the galaxy may be littered with other gas giants we haven’t yet discovered.
According to Science, Juno should be able to start making scientific observations after its first 53-day orbit, which will be around the end of August. Around October 19, Juno will fire up its thrusters again, and will accelerate its 53-day orbit into a 14-day orbit to gather data more quickly.