NASA's Jupiter Bound Juno Mission Swings By Earth

NASA's $1.1 billion Juno mission spacecraft whipped around the Earth with cameras rolling on Oct. 9, picking up new velocity with a gravity assist to complete a five-year journey to Jupiter, where the orbital probe will place the giant planet's atmosphere and structure under new scrutiny.

The pass took the four ton probe 350 miles over the southern tip of South Africa at 3:21 p.m., EDT, accelerating Juno to 87,000 miles per hour with respect to the sun.

"The maneuver went just fine," Scott Levin, the Juno project scientist from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said during a post flyby appearance on "The spacecraft is on the way to Jupiter as expected."

blog post photo

NASA's Juno spacecraft rushes past the Earth for a gravity assist to hasten its journey to Jupiter in this artist's illustration. Photo Credit/NASA/JPL/SWRI

Levin, however, did not address reports of a problem that placed the spacecraft in safe mode as it encountered the Earth.
Despite the problem, ``we believe we are on track as planned to Jupiter,'' said project manager Rick Nybakken of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages the Juno mission, according to the Associated Press.

Safe mode reflects a spacecraft issue that requires intervention from ground based flight control teams. During safe mode, the spacecraft's function is restricted while ground control teams sort the issue out, then send commands returning the probe to normal operations.

Launched Aug. 5, 2011 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., Juno followed a looping trajectory through the inner solar system that provided enough energy to reach the asteroid belt.  The mission trajectory permitted the probe to be pulled back by the sun's gravity toward the Earth with a pair of spacecraft maneuvers for the significant Oct. 9 gravity assist.

Lockheed Martin Space Systems, of Denver, Colo, builder of the spacecraft, is responsible for day to day operations. The Juno mission was developed by JPL, which was permitted to provide overall mission management during the U. S. government shutdown but constrained from hosting news briefings or issuing mission statements using NASA websites. Levin spoke with from Denver, where he was attending an astronomy conference.

Juno is equipped with nine instruments to probe the big planet's atmospheric structure and whether it hosts a solid core. Findings may help explain the early phases of planet formation throughout the solar system.


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