The arrival of NASA’s space probe, Juno, has been one of the most anticipated events this year–and as of July 4th, we can look to NASA for its smooth execution and delivery.
Juno has been cruising the Solar System ever since it left Earth on August 5, 2011, making a beeline for our largest planet. Once the trip neared completion, the probe had to perform its most delicate maneuver to date. Juno conducted a series of precise movements to slow down enough to allow it to be pulled into orbit. It fired its main engine exactly 2,609 miles away from Jupiter for 35 minutes, effectively hitting the brakes to slow the spacecraft by about 542 meters per second (336 miles per hour). If Juno made even a slight mistake in slowing down, it would miss a Jupiter orbit entirely, slingshotting further into the Solar System. If it failed to make it at exactly the right speed, it wouldn’t be able to sync up with the gas giant’s gravity.
To make this even riskier, Juno was on its own. Signals from Jupiter take almost 49 minutes to reach Earth. If something went wrong with the insertion, a remote fix was impossible. In fact, NASA would not have even been aware of the problem until it was much too late.
With all these risky maneuvers and with Jupiter’s harsh environment, the probe has its most sensitive bits stored in a titanium vault. All of its nine instruments were turned off to protect them during the insertion process. Therefore, we will just have to wait for those hotly anticipated pictures. Juno’s instruments will activate for its next pass.