NASA’s Juno spacecraft made its closest scheduled swing over the cloud tops of the giant planet Jupiter today – and sent back pictures.
The solar-powered probe zoomed about 2,600 miles above the clouds at a speed of 130,000 mph, at 6:44 a.m. PT, NASA said. It was the first close encounter since Juno entered Jovian orbit on July 4, 53 days ago.
“Early post-flyby telemetry indicates that everything worked as planned, and Juno is firing on all cylinders,” Rick Nybakken, Juno project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a status update.
Juno had all of its science instruments turned on, plus its JunoCam visible-light imager. Hours after the encounter, NASA released a picture of Jupiter that was snapped during today’s approach from a distance of 437,000 miles. Even closer views are on the way.
The closest close-ups are expected to provide the best views of the Jovian atmosphere we’ve ever seen. There should also be some great glimpses of Jupiter’s north and south poles, NASA says.
JunoCam was included on Juno’s payload primarily for public outreach purposes. The $1.1 billion mission’s primary science objectives are to study the planet’s magnetic and gravitational fields, and to determine its interior composition.
Interpreting the science data from this first pass is likely to take some time.
“We are getting some intriguing early data returns as we speak,” said Scott Bolton, a planetary scientist from the Southwest Research Institute who serves as the mission’s principal investigator. “It will take days for all the science data collected during the flyby to be downlinked, and even more to begin to comprehend what Juno and Jupiter are trying to tell us.”
Juno is in a long, looping orbit that takes it through a close encounter only every few weeks. Thirty-five more close flybys are scheduled during the prime mission, which runs through February 2018. But none of those flybys is expected to be closer than this one.
The spacecraft was launched in 2011 and took almost five years to get to Jupiter.