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Juno at Jupiter

July 2, 2016

Jupiter blazes in the west at nightfall. It’s the brightest pinpoint of light in the night sky, so you can’t miss it.

The giant planet is about 540 million miles away. At that distance, it takes 48 minutes for the sunlight that reflects off Jupiter’s clouds to reach Earth. For skywatching purposes, that doesn’t really matter. But it does matter to scientists and engineers at NASA, who are guiding a spacecraft toward the planet.

Juno is scheduled to arrive at Jupiter on Monday. It’ll fire its main engine for 30 minutes, slowing it into orbit around Jupiter’s poles. But because it’s so far away, the craft will be on its own — no one will be able to help if something goes wrong.

If things go right, Juno will slip into an even lower orbit over the following days and weeks. Eventually, it’ll drop to within about 3,000 miles of the planet’s poles.

From that orbit, Juno will probe Jupiter’s interior, its atmosphere, and its magnetic field. Those observations will yield new details on how Jupiter is put together, what its atmosphere is like far below the cloudtops, and how the planet interacts with the solar wind. Scientists hope the findings will help reveal how Jupiter and the solar system’s other planets took shape. More about that tomorrow.

Juno also carries a camera that will photograph Jupiter when the craft is closest to the planet. That’ll provide the sharpest views of Jupiter’s cloudtops to date — pictures from half-a-billion miles away.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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