A spacecraft has skimmed the clouds of Jupiter in a record-breaking close approach to the giant planet, coming the closest any spacecraft has ever come.
Juno activated its whole suite of nine instruments as it began its journey to reach 2,500 miles above Jupiter’s swirling cloud tops at 130,000mph today.
We can’t wait to see the pictures that will come from the journey, and no doubt the brains at Nasa are most excited for the wealth of information they’ll get about the fifth planet from the Sun.
Principal investigator Dr Scott Bolton, of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, US, said: “This is our first opportunity to really take a close-up look at the king of our solar system and begin to figure out how he works.”
It will take some days for the images and information gathered by Juno to be downloaded on Earth.
Nasa hopes to release a handful of close-up images from JunoCam, the probe’s panoramic colour camera, during the later part of this week. They should include the first detailed pictures of Jupiter’s north and south poles.
In total, 35 more close fly-bys are planned during Juno’s primary mission, scheduled to end in February 2018.
Only one other spacecraft, Galileo, which visited Jupiter and its moons from 1995 to 2003, has orbited the planet. Although it was deliberately crashed onto Jupiter at the end of its mission, it orbited from much further out than Juno.
Powered by three huge solar panels, Juno was launched into space by an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on August 5 2011.
It took five years to complete the 1.8 billion-mile journey from Earth.
The probe has had to be specially strengthened to withstand the circuit-frying radiation around Jupiter. Its vital flight computer is housed in an armoured vault made of titanium and weighing almost 400lb.
At the end of its 20-month mission, Juno will follow in the footsteps of Galileo by making a one-way plunge into the planet’s thick atmosphere.
Scientists are eagerly looking forward to analysing a treasure trove of data about Jupiter’s composition, gravity, magnetic field, and the source of its raging 384mph winds.