August 5, 2011

Juno Launches Successfully In A Dramatic Fashion

NASA's Juno spacecraft successfully launched in a dramatic fashion on Friday and is now on its way to unlock secrets about the planet Jupiter.

The 4-ton spacecraft lifted off from launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida at 12:25 p.m. (EDT) and is only the second spacecraft to have its coordinates set towards Jupiter.

NASA delayed the original 11:34 a.m. (EDT) launch time due to issues relating to the Centaur helium system on the Atlas V rocket it flew on into space.  Once engineers solved this issue, NASA had to wait for a boat to move itself out of the launch danger area.

"Eastern Range reports a boat has strayed into the launch danger area offshore, and helicopters are on their way to the area to encourage the boater to move," NASA said in a blog prior to launch.

The spacecraft only had a 22-day launch window and would have had to wait another 13 months until the next opportunity to catch Jupiter.

"It's those kinds of challenges with making sure you do all the little things necessary to maximize the opportunities you get for those 22 days," John Calvert, mission manager for Juno, said in a statement prior to launch.

Juno is equipped with nine instruments to study Jupiter.  The spacecraft's Jupiter Energetic Particle Detector Instrument (JEDI), Jovian Auroral Distributions Experiment (JADE), and Waves instrument will examine the way the atmosphere interacts with Jupiter's powerful magnetic field, including the planet's auroras.

Magnetometers and the Gravity Science experiment will help map out the gravitational and magnetic fields to learn more about what is inside Jupiter.

Juno's Microwave Radiometer will look beneath the planet's swirling curtain of clouds, while the Ultraviolet Imaging Spectrograph and Jovian Infrared Auroral Mapper (JIRAM) will photograph auroras using ultraviolet and infrared cameras.

Light takes just 40 minutes to travel the 445 million miles to Jupiter, while Juno will take five years.  The spacecraft will use an Earth flyby gravy assist in October 2013 to fling itself on track to reach Jupiter in August 2016.

The research Juno will be used for may confirm theories about how the solar system formed, or could even change everything scientists believe about the solar system.

"The special thing about Juno is we're really looking at one of the first steps, the earliest time in our solar system's history," Scott Bolton, the principal investigator for the Juno mission, said in a press release prior to launch. "Right after the sun formed, what happened that allowed the planets to form and why are the planets a slightly different composition than the sun?"

"If we could start to understand the role that Jupiter played and how the planet formed and how that eventually governed the creation of the other planets and the Earth and maybe even life itself," Bolton said, "then we know a little bit about how to look for other Earth-like planets, maybe orbiting other stars and how common those might be and the roles that those giant planets that we see orbiting the other stars play."

After about 33 orbits around the gas giant, Juno will be putting an end to its mission in 2017.


Image Caption: The Juno spacecraft is shown deploying its three solar arrays in this artist concept. Artist concept, NASA


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