The much-awaited rendezvous is finally coming to an end, and it’s going to be a fiery one.
Juno, the unmanned, solar-powered spacecraft that set out five years ago, is finally going to reach its destination: Jupiter. The gas-giant is going to be visited by the spacecraft on the 4th of July, after which it will continue to orbit the planet for a year. The spacecraft will gather data that humankind has tried to gather before, albeit unsuccessfully. In 1995, the Galileo Probe was sent into the Jovian Planet after which it survived for about 78 minutes. The pressure of the planet’s atmosphere vapourised it but not before slowing it down from 30 miles per second to 0.07 miles per second. For our metric fans, that’s 46 km per second to 0.12 km per second. However, before dying a ballad worthy death, the Probe managed to study Jupiter’s atmosphere giving us insight into the formation of the solar system and even our origins.
The spacecraft will conduct 33 flybys once it manages to enter Jupiter’s orbit. This is the only shot that Juno has to enter the harsh, irradiated planetary orbit. Once it has entered the orbit, it must survive the hell-fire that scientists call Jupiter’s atmosphere for the next year and a half or so. During its flybys, Juno will map Jupiter’s gravitational and magnetic fields as well as the interior composition of the gas giant. The flybys will also attempt to satiate the ever present obsession that humans have with finding water on other planets. Another mystery to be solved is whether or not the planet has a solid core. The planet is a literal time capsule of our solar system, with an enormous mass that helps hold all the gases together. Once Juno manages to tear through its radiation belt, it will be able to analyze the planet and help us understand the evolution of the solar system.
The spacecraft conducted an earth flyby in 2013 and it will now proceed to enter Jupiter’s orbit at a lightening fast speed of 58 km per second. For this purpose, it will burn up to 800 kgs of fuel in 35 minutes to do this. Juno is set to fall past the planet at least 37 times, getting as close as 4,700 km to the planet. The high-resolution JunoCam is designed to take pictures of every little bit of Jupiter that it is exposed to.
Due to the harsh radiation, Juno’s equipment can be severely damaged. Jupiter’s magnetic field is 20,000 times powerful than Earth’s. This means that merely orbiting the planet can fry the craft. Titanium walls that are a centimetre thick were designed to protect the interior. The craft weighs 3.6 tonnes and is as big as a tennis court with three 9 metre solar panels. After the mission is over, Juno will then dive into the planet so as to avoid contaminating Jupiter’s moons.
Check out Juno’s countdown on NASA’s homepage.