Juno turns around and heads off to graze Jupiter's clouds

First 'capture orbit' passes 'apojove', probe breaks out its cameras to celebrate

Juno's planned orbits. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This diagram shows the Juno spacecraft's orbits, including its two long, stretched-out capture orbits. The spacecraft's position on July 31 is indicated at left. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Juno is on its way back to Jupiter after successfully reaching 'apojove', the high point of its first orbit of the gas giant. And now the craft is heading for its closest encounter with Jupiter.

Juno's mission plan called for it to enter the planet's gravitational sphere of influence and slow down by making two “capture orbits” that will prepare it for many more and rather closer “science orbits”. On Monday, UK time, the probe reached the apogee of the first capture orbit, dubbed “apojove” by NASA, and started swinging back towards Jupiter.

Each capture orbit will consume about 53 Earth days, meaning we are now 26 days from Juno's closest encounter with Jupiter. That pass, scheduled for August 27th, will see the probe graze Jovian clouds at an altitude of just 4,200km.

When Juno arrived at Jupiter, NASA left most of its instruments off so it could focus on manoeuvres. Now the probe's eyes are wide open, the better to drink in the amazing views that will come with this close encounter.

Assuming the craft survives this orbit, a second capture orbit awaits before Juno settles in to a fourteen-day orbit from which all manner of observations will be conducted.

Mission scientists are celebrating passing apojove hard, as it's just a few days shy of the fifth anniversary of Juno's August 5th, 2011, launch. The craft will see a sixth birthday, but not a seventh: it's planned to “de-orbit” in January 2018, when it will plunge into the Jovian clouds never to return. ®

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