NASA’s Juno mission to cross halfway to Jupiter next week

Washington: NASA’s Juno mission will next week mark the halfway point in data collection by completing the 16th science pass of Jupiter.

Launched on August 5, 2011, from Cape Canaveral, the spacecraft entered orbit around Jupiter on July 4, 2016.

“On December 21, at 11:49:48 a.m. EST the Juno spacecraft will be 5,053 kilometres above Jupiter’s cloud tops and hurtling by at a healthy clip of 207,287 kilometres per hour,” NASA said in a statement on Wednesday.

“This will be the 16th science pass of the gas giant and will mark the solar-powered spacecraft’s halfway point in data collection during its prime mission,” it added.

Currently, Juno is in a highly-elliptical 53-day orbit around Jupiter. Each orbit includes a close passage over the planet’s cloud deck where it flies a ground track that extends from Jupiter’s north pole to its south pole.

“With our 16th science flyby, we will have complete global coverage of Jupiter, albeit at coarse resolution, with polar passes separated by 22.5 degrees of longitude,” said Jack Connerney, Juno deputy principal investigator from the Space Research Corporation in Maryland.

“Over the second half of our prime mission — science flybys 17 through 32 — we will split the difference, flying exactly halfway between each previous orbit.

“This will provide coverage of the planet every 11.25 degrees of longitude, providing a more detailed picture of what makes the whole of Jupiter tick,” Connerney added.

Juno’s science collection began in earnest on the August 27, 2016, flyby. During these flybys, Juno’s suite of sensitive science instruments probes beneath the planet’s obscuring cloud cover and studies Jupiter’s auroras to learn more about the planet’s origins, interior structure, atmosphere and magnetosphere.

“The second half should provide the detail that we can use to refine our understanding of the depth of Jupiter’s zonal winds, the generation of its magnetic field, and the structure and evolution of its interior,” explained Scott Bolton, principal investigator of Juno, from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.

Juno has aboard two instruments — the Stellar Reference Unit and JunoCam — designed to collect engineering data and as an outreach instrument to bring the excitement and beauty of Jupiter exploration to the public.