“Welcome to Jupiter!”
At 11:53 p.m. ET, after a five-year journey, the Juno spacecraft successfully inserted into Jupiter’s orbit a second ahead of calculations to begin 20 months of unprecedented science.
Applause erupted as the news streamed via monitors from mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and partner Lockheed Martin’s Juno operations center in Denver into rooms where press, friends, and families gathered.
“What a feeling!” said a relieved and exuberant Geoff Yoder, NASA’s Science Mission Directorate acting associate administrator during the press conference that followed. “A mission of this complexity just highlights the relationship between NASA, its contractors, and partners.”
Juno project manager Rick Nybakken made a dramatic gesture of ripping up a printout of contingency plans, written in case the mission took a turn for the worse.
“A 1.7 billion-mile journey and we hit our burn targets within one second!” he said, citing the 900-member team that built and launched Juno and the 300 engineers and scientists who operated it.
The team showed a video of Juno’s approach, giving a nod to Galileo, who first pointed a telescope at Jupiter in 1610 and noticed the planet’s moons revolving around it. “It changed our culture and perspective—that Earth is not the center of the universe,” said Juno principal investigator Scott Bolton.
Instruments will begin turning on by the early hours of Thursday morning and start gathering data, but the first images—and a hoped for video of the first orbit—won’t unveil until August 27. That’s the end of the first of two 53.5-day orbits to turn on and calibrate its science instruments, adjusting for any unanticipated surprises about Jupiter. After the second, ending October 14, Juno will adjust via another engine burn to 14-day orbits closer to Jupiter, where Juno will glean most of the science data.
Ultimately, Juno will make 37 different longitudinal orbits over the poles to map the planet’s structure, atmospheric composition, and gravitational and magnetic fields before shifting its orbit into the lower atmosphere and burning up in 2018. As the solar system’s first planet to form, Jupiter’s make-up may reveal how the early solar system formed.
“I’m curious to see how the spacecraft performs,” says Guy Beutelschies, Lockheed Martin Space Systems director of interplanetary missions. “This is the first solar mission to the outer planets, opening up opportunities to the types of missions we can send out there.”
Bolton is more poetic: “It’s answering a question I’ve had my whole life: How did we get here?”
Somewhere, Galileo is smiling.