NASA’s Juno Mission to Enter Jupiter’s Orbit on Fourth of July

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A spinning, solar-powered spacecraft as wide as a basketball court will arrive at Jupiter on the Fourth of July to study the giant planet and to take the highest-resolution images of Jupiter in history.

Astronomers are using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope to study auroras — stunning light shows in a planet's atmosphere — on the poles of the largest planet in the solar system, Jupiter. This image was released June 30, 2016. (Credits: NASA, ESA, and J. Nichols/University of Leicester)

Astronomers are using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope to study auroras — stunning light shows in a planet’s atmosphere — on the poles of the largest planet in the solar system, Jupiter. This image was released June 30, 2016. (Credits: NASA, ESA, and J. Nichols/University of Leicester)

NASA’s robotic Juno probe is carrying seven science instruments designed to help scientists figure out how Jupiter formed and evolved.

The planet is the most massive in our solar system — a huge ball of gas 11 times wider than Earth. Researchers think it was the first planet to form and that it holds clues to how the solar system evolved.

Just days before Juno is set to arrive, NASA released an incredible image of the giant planet as seen from the Hubble Space Telescope, which is being used to study auroras. The light shows are created when high-energy particles enter a planet’s atmosphere near its magnetic poles, colliding with gas atoms, according to NASA.

The telescope’s observation is “perfectly timed” to coincide with Juno’s arrival, the agency said.

“These auroras are very dramatic and among the most active I have ever seen”, said Hubble study principal investigator Jonathan Nichols of the University of Leicester. “It almost seems as if Jupiter is throwing a firework party for the imminent arrival of Juno.”

Juno, managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge, was launched in 2011. The spacecraft is expected to fly within 2,600 miles of Jupiter on Monday night.

“NASA has a long history of milestones on the Fourth of July and we look forward to making our own fireworks this year,” said Diane Brown, Juno program executive, at a mission update at JPL on Thursday.

Spacecraft have been to Jupiter before, but scientists still are puzzled. What’s going on under Jupiter’s dense clouds? Does it have a solid core? How much water is in its atmosphere? And how deep are those colorful bands and that mysterious giant red spot?

“One of the primary goals of Juno is to learn the recipe for solar systems,” Scott Bolton, Juno principal investigator, said at a news conference on June 16. “How do you make the solar system? How do you make the planets in our solar system?”

Jupiter looks a lot like the sun, but it has much more going on than the sun, and that’s really important.

“The stuff that Jupiter has more of is what we’re all made out of,” he said. “It’s what the Earth is made out of. It’s what life comes from.”

Juno will help solve the mysteries of Jupiter by looking at its interior. The spacecraft will orbit the poles about 3,000 miles (5,000 kilometers) above the planet’s clouds and try to dodge the planet’s most hazardous radiation belts. To protect the spacecraft from the radiation, Juno has a shielded electronics vault.

Juno also has a color camera and a three LEGO crew members (yes, LEGOs).

The camera is called JunoCam and NASA says it will take “spectacular close-up, color images” of Jupiter. NASA is asking the public to help decide where to point the camera.

Now, about those LEGO crew members. Three 1.5-inch figurines are onboard Juno. One is a likeness of Galileo Galilei — the scientist who discovered Jupiter’s four largest moons. The other two represent the Roman god Jupiter and his wife Juno. They were included to inspire children to study science and math.

Juno’s spacecraft body measures 11.5 feet (3.5 meters) tall and 11.5 feet in diameter. But with its three solar panels open, it spans about 66 feet (20 meters). For comparison, an NBA basketball court is 50 feet wide and 94 feet long.

Jupiter was 445 million miles (716 million kilometers) from Earth when Juno was launched from Cape Canaveral on Aug. 5, 2011. But the probe traveled a total distance of 1,740 million miles (2,800 million kilometers) to reach the gaseous planet, making a flyby of Earth to help pick up speed.

You can see Jupiter from Earth without any special binoculars or telescopes. It’s the bright star in the evening sky from January through August. If you do have a telescope, you can see its largest moons.

The Juno mission ends on Feb. 20, 2018, when Juno will crash into Jupiter.