NASA has something to be proud about in terms of its 1 Billion-dollar Juno spacecraft, which is currently observing the Jovian system of our Solar System.
Image Credit: NASA
Jupiter is of great interest to astronomers because it’s the largest planet in our Solar System and because it’s a gas giant, which are common in exoplanet discoveries all around the galaxy. Moreover, gas giants are similar to brown dwarfs, something astronomers really want to know a lot more about.
Although Juno was sent to Jupiter to study it, and made it there successfully in July, there have reportedly been quite a few problems with the probe in just two recent days of activity during one of its routine orbital fly-bys. The issues mean NASA may have to extend the mission termination date up to two years beyond the February, 2018 date.
According to one of NASA’s statements, the probe experienced a problem with sticky engine valves during a test fire of the engine on October 19th, which in essence, means NASA is having some problems getting Juno to speed up while it orbits around the gas giant.
The engines on the probe are supposed to shorten the time it takes to orbit the planet from 53 days to just two weeks, and unfortunately, two of the engine’s valves were performing below par and are making this process difficult.
If they had worked as expected, the mission’s orbital speed could have been sped up at least 4x. For now, NASA says they’re going to revisit this issue at a later date, presumably around December 11th when the probe will have another chance to fire its engines.
Another problem to plague the success of Juno as of late is that the spacecraft has entered Safe Mode. This happened while the probe was heading back towards Jupiter via its configured elliptical orbit.
The problem occurred at a very inconvenient time, as it kept the probe from taking new photographs of the planet and capturing important information about Jupiter’s magnetic field and radiation that astronomers would have liked to study up close.
Juno is designed to enter safe mode whenever anything doesn’t perform as expected as to protect the probe and its valuable information. During safe mode, only the most critical things are able to perform.
NASA has reportedly booted it back out of safe mode and restored full operating function, but the timing of the event was certainly less than appreciated by mission staff who wanted to collect data this time around.
Overall, the latter problem was probably just a hiccup, but finding the problem that’s causing the sticky valves could be a larger problem. It’s possible NASA can fix it remotely, but if not, this could be a long and drawn-out mission.
At the end of the Juno mission, NASA wants to send the Juno spacecraft plummeting into Jupiter’s clouds as a ‘last hurrah’ and to get as much information about the planet’s cloud composition as possible.
Source: NASA (1), (2)