Wakey Wakey! Juno Spacecraft Turns on Science Gear at Jupiter
Artist's illustration of NASA's Juno probe at Jupiter.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA's Juno spacecraft is opening its eyes to prepare for its first good look at Jupiter.

Juno's nine science instruments were off when the probe entered orbit around the solar system's largest planet Monday (July 4), to reduce complications during that night's make-or-break orbit-insertion engine burn.

The mission team powered up five of those instruments Wednesday (July 6) and plans to turn on the other four before the end of the month, NASA officials said. So Juno should be ready to gather some science data when Juno makes its next close pass by the huge planet on Aug. 27. (The probe is currently in a 53-day orbit around Jupiter.)

"Next time around, we will have our eyes and ears open," Juno principal investigator Scott Bolton, of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, said in a statement today (July 8). "You can expect us to release some information about our findings around Sept. 1."

The $1.1 billion Juno mission launched in August 2011 and aims to help scientists better understand Jupiter's magnetic and gravitational fields, composition and interior structure — in particular, whether the huge planet harbors a core of heavy elements.

The probe's observations should shed light on when, where and how Jupiter — and, by extension, the solar system as a whole — came together, mission team members have said.

Juno will make most of its measurements from its highly elliptical 14-day science orbit, which will bring it within 3,100 miles (5,000 kilometers) of Jupiter's cloud tops at its closest approach. The spacecraft will perform a 22-minute engine burn on Oct. 19 to achieve that orbit. (Juno's main engine will also fire up on July 13 for a brief "trajectory-correction maneuver," NASA officials said.)

In total, Juno will loop around Jupiter 37 times before ending its life with an intentional death dive into Jupiter's thick atmosphere in February 2018. This final maneuver is designed to ensure that Earth microbes don't contaminate the Jovian moon Europa, which scientists think might be capable of supporting life.

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