JUNO Orbiter Mated to Mightiest Atlas rocket for Aug. 5 Blastoff to Jupiter


In less than one week’s time, NASA’s $1.1 Billion Juno probe will blast off on the most powerful Atlas V rocket ever built and embark on a five year cruise to Jupiter where it will seek to elucidate the mysteries of the birth and evolution of our solar system’s largest planet and how that knowledge applies to the remaining planets.

The stage was set for Juno’s liftoff on August 5 at 11:34 a.m. after the solar-powered spacecraft was mated atop the Atlas V rocket at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral and firmly bolted in place at 10:42 a.m. EDT on July 27.

“We’re about to start our journey to Jupiter to unlock the secrets of the early solar system,” said Scott Bolton, the mission’s principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “After eight years of development, the spacecraft is ready for its important mission.”

Inside the Vertical Integration Facility at Space Launch Complex 41, the Juno spacecraft, enclosed in an Atlas payload fairing, is in position on top of its Atlas launch vehicle. The spacecraft was prepared for launch in the Astrotech Space Operations' payload processing facility in Titusville, Fla. Credit: NASA/Cory Huston

The launch window for Juno extends from Aug. 5 through Aug. 26. The launch time on Aug. 5 opens at 11:34 a.m. EDT and closes at 12:43 p.m. EDT. Juno is the second mission in NASA’s New Frontiers program.

JUNO’s three giant solar panels will unfurl about five minutes after payload separation following the launch, said Jan Chodas, Juno’s project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif.

The probe will cartwheel through space during its five year trek to Jupiter.

Upon arrival in July 2016, JUNO will fire its braking rockets and go into polar orbit and circle Jupiter 33 times over about one year. The goal is to find out more about the planet’s origins, interior structure and atmosphere, observe the aurora, map the intense magnetic field and investigate the existence of a solid planetary core.

Hoisting Juno inside the payload fairing at Space Launch Complex 41. Credit: NASA/Cory Huston

“Juno will become the first polar orbiting spacecraft at Jupiter. Not only are we over the poles, but we’re getting closer to Jupiter in our orbit than any other spacecraft has gone,” Bolton elaborated at a briefing for reporters at the Kennedy Space Center. “We’re only 5,000 kilometers above the cloud tops and so we’re skimming right over those cloud tops and we’re actually dipping down beneath the radiation belts, which is a very important thing for us. Because those radiation belts at Jupiter are the most hazardous region in the entire solar system other than going right to the sun itself.”

“Jupiter probably formed first. It’s the largest of all the planets and in fact it’s got more material in it than all the rest of the solar system combined. If I took everything in the solar system except the sun, it could all fit inside Jupiter. So we want to know the recipe.”

Watch for my continuing updates and on-site launch coverage of Juno, only the 2nd probe from Earth to ever orbit Jupiter. Galileo was the first.

Solar Powered Jupiter bound JUNO lands at Kennedy Space Center for blastoff


Juno, NASA’s next big mission bound for the outer planets, has arrived at the Kennedy Space Center to kick off the final leg of launch preparations in anticipation of blastoff for Jupiter this summer.

The huge solar-powered Juno spacecraft will skim to within 4800 kilometers (3000 miles) of the cloud tops of Jupiter to study the origin and evolution of our solar system’s largest planet. Understanding the mechanism of how Jupiter formed will lead to a better understanding of the origin of planetary systems around other stars throughout our galaxy.

Juno will be spinning like a windmill as it fly’s in a highly elliptical polar orbit and investigates the gas giant’s origins, structure, atmosphere and magnetosphere with a suite of nine science instruments.

Technicians at Astrotech's payload processing facility in Titusville, Fla. secure NASA's Juno spacecraft to the rotation stand for testing. The solar-powered spacecraft will orbit Jupiter's poles 33 times to find out more about the gas giant's origins. Credit: NASA/Jack Pfaller

During the five year cruise to Jupiter, the 3,600 kilogram probe will fly by Earth once in 2013 to pick up speed and accelerate Juno past the asteroid belt on its long journey to the Jovian system where it arrives in July 2016.

Juno will orbit Jupiter 33 times and search for the existence of a solid planetary core, map Jupiter’s intense magnetic field, measure the amount of water and ammonia in the deep atmosphere, and observe the planet’s auroras.

The mission will provide the first detailed glimpse of Jupiter’s poles and is set to last approximately one year. The elliptical orbit will allow Juno to avoid most of Jupiter’s harsh radiation regions that can severely damage the spacecraft systems.

Juno was designed and built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, and air shipped in a protective shipping container inside the belly of a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster cargo jet to the Astrotech payload processing facility in Titusville, Fla.

Juno undergoes acoustics testing at Lockheed Martin in Denver where the spacecraft was built. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Lockheed Martin

This week the spacecraft begins about four months of final functional testing and integration inside the climate controlled clean room and undergoes a thorough verification that all its systems are healthy. Other processing work before launch includes attachment of the long magnetometer boom and solar arrays which arrived earlier.

Juno is the first solar powered probe to be launched to the outer planets and operate at such a great distance from the sun. Since Jupiter receives 25 times less sunlight than Earth, Juno will carry three giant solar panels, each spanning more than 20 meters (66 feet) in length. They will remain continuously in sunlight from the time they are unfurled after launch through the end of the mission.

“The Juno spacecraft and the team have come a long way since this project was first conceived in 2003,” said Scott Bolton, Juno’s principal investigator, based at Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, in a statement. “We’re only a few months away from a mission of discovery that could very well rewrite the books on not only how Jupiter was born, but how our solar system came into being.”

Juno is slated to launch aboard the most powerful version of the Atlas V rocket – augmented by 5 solid rocket boosters – from Cape Canaveral, Fla. on August 5. The launch window extends through August 26. Juno is the second mission in NASA’s New Frontiers program.

NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover will follow Juno to the Atlas launch pad, and is scheduled to liftoff in late November 2011. Read my stories about Curiosity here and here.

Because of cuts to NASA’s budget by politicians in Washington, the long hoped for mission to investigate the Jovian moon Europa may be axed, along with other high priority science missions. Europa may harbor subsurface oceans of liquid water and is a prime target in NASA’s search for life beyond Earth.

Technicians inside the clean room at Astrotech in Titusville, Fla. guide NASA's Juno spacecraft, as it is lowered by overhead crane, onto the rotation stand for testing. Credit: NASA/Jack Pfaller
Technicians at Astrotech unfurl solar array No. 1 with a magnetometer boom that will help power NASA's Juno spacecraft on a mission to Jupiter. Credit: NASA
Juno's interplanetary trajectory to Jupiter. Juno will launch in August 2011 and fly by Earth once in October 2013 during its 5 year cruise to Jupiter. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA/JPL

Astronomy Without A Telescope – Solar Or RTG?


It used to be the case that if you wanted to send a spacecraft mission out past the asteroid belt, you’d need a chunk of plutonium-238 to generate electric power – like for Pioneers 10 and 11, Voyagers 1 and 2, Galileo, Cassini, even Ulysses which just did a big loop out and back to get a new angle on the Sun – and now New Horizons on its way to Pluto.

But in 2011, the Juno mission to Jupiter is scheduled for launch – the first outer planet exploration mission to be powered by solar panels. And also scheduled for 2011, in another break with tradition – Curiosity, the Mars Science Laboratory will be the first Mars rover to be powered by a plutonium-238 radioisotope thermoelectric generator – or RTG.

I mean OK, the Viking landers had RTGs, but they weren’t rovers. And the rovers (including Sojourner) had radioisotope heaters, but they weren’t RTGs.

So, solar or RTG – what’s best? Some commentators have suggested that NASA’s decision to power Juno with solar is a pragmatic one – seeking to conserve a dwindling supply of RTGs – which have a bit of a PR problem due to the plutonium.

However, if it works, why not push the limits of solar? Although some of our longest functioning probes (like the 33 year old Voyagers) are RTG powered, their long-term survival is largely a result of them operating far away from the harsh radiation of the inner solar system – where things are more likely to break down before they run out of power. That said, since Juno will lead a perilous life flying close to Jupiter’s own substantial radiation, longevity may not be a key feature of its mission.

Perhaps RTG power has more utility. It should enable Curiosity to go on roving throughout the Martian winter – and perhaps manage a range of analytical, processing and data transmission tasks at night, unlike the previous rovers.

With respect to power output, Juno’s solar panels would allegedly produce a whopping 18 kilowatts in Earth orbit, but will only manage 400 watts in Jupiter orbit. If correct, this is still on par with the output of a standard RTG unit – although a large spacecraft like Cassini can stack several RTG units together to generate up to 1 kilowatt.

So, some pros and cons there. Nonetheless, there is a point – which we might position beyond Jupiter’s orbit now – where solar power just isn’t going to cut it and RTGs still look like the only option.

Left image: a plutonium-238 ceramic pellet glowing red hot, like most concentrated ceramicised radioisotopes will do. Credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory. Right image: the Apollo 14 ALSEP RTG, almost identical to Apollo 13's RTG which re-entered Earth's atmosphere with the demise of the Aquarius lunar module. Credit: NASA

RTGs take advantage of the heat generated by a chunk of radioactive material (generally plutonium 238 in a ceramic form), surrounding it with thermocouples which use the thermal gradient between the heat source and the cooler outer surface of the RTG unit to generate current.

In response to any OMG it’s radioactive concerns, remember that RTGs travelled with the Apollo 12-17 crews to power their lunar surface experiment packages – including the one on Apollo 13 – which was returned unused to Earth with the lunar module Aquarius – the crew’s life boat until just before re-entry. Allegedly, NASA tested the waters where the remains of Aquarius ended up and found no trace of plutonium contamination – much as expected. It’s unlikely that its heat tested container was damaged on re-entry and its integrity was guaranteed for ten plutonium-238 half-lives, that is 900 years.

In any case, the most dangerous thing you can do with plutonium is to concentrate it. In the unlikely event that an RTG disintegrates on Earth re-entry and its plutonium is somehow dispersed across the planet – well, good. The bigger worry would be that it somehow stays together as a pellet and plonks into your beer without you noticing. Cheers.