"Now the fun" and science begins, as Juno begins probe of Jupiter

A five-year journey to gather clues about the formation of the solar system took a giant step forward Tuesday when a US spacecraft successfully entered orbit around Jupiter, NASA confirmed.

"What a feeling," said Geoff Yoder, associate administrator of NASA's science mission directorate. "A mission of this complexity ... to accomplish this tonight is just truly amazing."

"NASA did it again," said Scott Bolton, principal investigator of Juno.

The Juno spacecraft fired its engines early Tuesday for a 35-minute manoeuvre to place it into orbit around the solar system's largest planet as researchers watched from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

The panel of six were all smiles at the evening press conference.

"First we have to take care of business, said Rick Nybakken, Juno's project manager, as he ripped up a contingency communications procedure. "We don't need that any more," he said.

After a 1.79-billion-mile journey to Jupiter, the spacecraft hit its burn target within one second, Nybakken said.

"That's how good our team is. That's how well the Juno spacecraft performed tonight."

Success of the tricky move was confirmed with a three-second radio signal.

Juno is to orbit the planet 37 times during the next 20 months, coming the closest of any previous spacecraft to the planet, grazing Jupiter's highest clouds just 5,000 kilometres from the surface.

Jupiter is believed to be the first planet to have formed in the solar system and likely captured many elements and gases left over from the formation of the star that became Earth's sun. Researchers hope the mission will provide a window back in time to study the formation of the solar system.

"Now the fun begins," Bolton said. "The science!"

The 1.1-billion-dollar mission will use instruments aboard the craft to look below Jupiter's swirling cloud cover. The primary focus will be on measuring water in the atmosphere to test theories about planet formation. A previous mission found hardly any water in Jupiter's atmosphere, leaving scientists puzzled.

Juno will also map magnetic and gravitational fields to gather data about the planet's core and take measurements of Jupiter's composition, temperature and clouds and examine how its magnetic force affects the atmosphere.

The most recent mission to Jupiter launched more than two decades ago. That probe, called Galileo, was the only craft to actually orbit the planet. Juno seeks to answer some of the questions left from that mission.

The first visit to Jupiter was made by the Pioneer 10 in a 1973 flyby.

A team of almost 900 people helped build and launch Juno; roughly 300 people were responsible for operating Juno and ensuring the spacecraft made it all the way through to Jupiter's orbit.

Last update: Tue, 05/07/2016 - 11:44
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