Now just 7 days out from a critical orbital insertion burn, NASA’s Jupiter-bound Juno orbiter is closing in fast on the massive gas giant. And as its coming into focus the spacecraft has begun snapping a series of beautiful images of the biggest planet and its biggest moons.
In a newly released color image snapped by the probes educational public outreach camera named Junocam, banded Jupiter dominates a spectacular scene that includes the giant planet’s four largest moons — Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.
Junocam’s image of the approaching Jovian system was taken on June 21, 2016, at a distance of 6.8 million miles (10.9 million kilometers) and hints at the multitude of photos and science riches to come from Juno.
“Juno on Jupiter’s Doorstep,” says a NASA description. “And the alternating light and dark bands of the planet’s clouds are just beginning to come into view,” revealing its “distinctive swirling bands of orange, brown and white.”
Rather appropriately for an American space endeavor, the fate of the entire mission hinges on do or die ‘Independence Day’ fireworks.
On the evening of July 4, Juno must fire its main engine for 35 minutes.
The Joy of JOI – or Jupiter Orbit Insertion – will place NASA’s robotic explorer into a polar orbit around the gas giant.
The approach over the north pole is unlike earlier probes that approached from much lower latitudes nearer the equatorial zone, and thus provide a perspective unlike any other.
After a five-year and 2.8 Billion kilometer (1.7 Billion mile) outbound trek to the Jovian system and the largest planet in our solar system and an intervening Earth flyby speed boost, the moment of truth for Juno is now inexorably at hand.
And preparations are in full swing by the science and engineering team to ensure a spectacular Fourth of July fireworks display.
The team has been in contact with Juno 24/7 since June 11 and already uplinked the rocket firing parameters.
Signals traveling at the speed of light take 10 minutes to reach Earth.
The protective cover that shields Juno’s main engine from micrometeorites and interstellar dust was opened on June 20.
“And the software program that will command the spacecraft through the all-important rocket burn was uplinked,” says NASA.
The pressurization of the propulsion system is set for June 28.
“We have over five years of spaceflight experience and only 10 days to Jupiter orbit insertion,” said Rick Nybakken, Juno project manager from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said in a statement.
“It is a great feeling to put all the interplanetary space in the rearview mirror and have the biggest planet in the solar system in our windshield.”
On the night of orbital insertion, Juno will fly within 2,900 miles (4,667 kilometers) of the Jovian cloud tops.
All instruments except those critical for the JOI insertion burn on July 4, will be tuned off on June 29. That includes shutting down Junocam.
“If it doesn’t help us get into orbit, it is shut down,” said Scott Bolton, Juno’s principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.
“That is how critical this rocket burn is. And while we will not be getting images as we make our final approach to the planet, we have some interesting pictures of what Jupiter and its moons look like from five-plus million miles away.”
During a 20 month long science mission – entailing 37 orbits lasting 11 days each – the probe will plunge to within about 3000 miles of the turbulent cloud tops and collect unprecedented new data that will unveil the hidden inner secrets of Jupiter’s origin and evolution.
“Jupiter is the Rosetta Stone of our solar system,” says Bolton. “It is by far the oldest planet, contains more material than all the other planets, asteroids and comets combined and carries deep inside it the story of not only the solar system but of us. Juno is going there as our emissary — to interpret what Jupiter has to say.”
During the orbits, Juno will probe beneath the obscuring cloud cover of Jupiter and study its auroras to learn more about the planet’s origins, structure, atmosphere and magnetosphere.
Junocam has already taken some striking images during the Earth flyby gravity assist speed boost on Oct. 9, 2013.
For example the dazzling portrait of our Home Planet high over the South American coastline and the Atlantic Ocean.
For a hint of what’s to come, see our colorized Junocam mosaic of land, sea and swirling clouds, created by Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo.
As Juno sped over Argentina, South America and the South Atlantic Ocean it came within 347 miles (560 kilometers) of Earth’s surface.
During the flyby, the science team observed Earth using most of Juno’s nine science instruments since the slingshot also serves as an important dress rehearsal and key test of the spacecraft’s instruments, systems and flight operations teams.
The $1.1 Billion Juno was launched on Aug. 5, 2011 from Cape Canaveral, Florida atop the most powerful version of the Atlas V rocket augmented by 5 solid rocket boosters and built by United Launch Alliance (ULA). That same Atlas V 551 version just launched MUOS-5 for the US Navy on June 24.