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NASA’s Juno orbiter has to jump over Jupiter’s shadow, or die trying

Published Oct 3rd, 2019 2:02PM EDT
juno jupiter shadow
Image: NASA

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NASA’s Juno orbiter has been doing some really great work while in orbit around gas giant Jupiter. The spacecraft has taught scientists a great deal about the planet, as well as the processes that power its massive storms and swirling clouds. The mission has been an incredible success already, but NASA wants to keep it going as long as possible and doing so means avoiding Jupiter’s shadow.

Juno is solar-powered. It has thrusters that allow it to tweak its trajectory, but the juice that keeps its instruments up and running (and prevents them from freezing) comes from the Sun. As you might expect, avoiding the shadow of the largest planet in our solar system is tricky when that’s the planet you’re orbiting.

As a new update posted by the Juno team explains, the spacecraft was recently tasked with an exceptionally long thruster burn in order to adjust its path and allow it to “jump” over Jupiter’s shadow. The burn lasted over 10 hours, which is five times longer than any other burn in Juno’s mission thus far, but the spacecraft pulled it off.

The risks were incredibly great if Juno couldn’t fire its thrusters long enough to push it into a new path around the planet. As NASA explains, the orbiter’s previous trajectory would have sent it on a frigid 12-hour journey across the shadow Jupiter casts from the Sun, and that would likely have been a death sentence. The chances that it would wake back up after enduring that deep freeze are incredibly slim.

“With the success of this burn, we are on track to jump the shadow on Nov. 3,” Scott Bolton, Juno principal investigator, said in a statement. “Jumping over the shadow was an amazingly creative solution to what seemed like a fatal geometry. Eclipses are generally not friends of solar-powered spacecraft. Now instead of worrying about freezing to death, I am looking forward to the next science discovery that Jupiter has in store for Juno.”

NASA expects Juno’s mission to last through mid-2021, at which point it will perform a controlled deorbit that will destroy the spacecraft. In the meantime, we look forward to all the exciting things it has yet to show us.

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