NASA’s Juno spacecraft, which arrived at Jupiter on Independence Day (July 4th) of 2016, seems to be plagued with all kinds of mechanical problems. Two setbacks discovered in October of last year pretty much left many excited scientists, who were expecting a lot of unique information from Juno, face-palming instead of cheering.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/John Landino
Now, NASA is saying that Juno probably won’t be doing all the crazy and exciting things that it set out to do in the first place. Instead, it will stay in a relatively regular 53-day orbit around Jupiter for its entire mission.
Why? – There is too much risk in firing up Juno’s engines when we know they’re not working right. There’s a chance that the (expensive) spacecraft could go hurdling too far into a direction that we don’t want it to, which would render the entire mission pointless.
The choice to remain in the orbit Juno is currently in already means we won’t get all the details about Jupiter we were hoping Juno would help uncover, but on the other hand, it also means Juno can be a bit more thorough in the orbit that it’s currently in already.
“Juno is healthy, its science instruments are fully operational, and the data and images we’ve received are nothing short of amazing,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “The decision to forego the burn is the right thing to do – preserving a valuable asset so that Juno can continue its exciting journey of discovery.”
These setbacks, which included problems with the spacecraft’s engine valves and computer controls, don’t appear to be impacting the probe’s various observational sensors, which means Juno can continue to act as NASA’s eyes and ears for the Jovian system.
That said, Juno will still continue to return valuable scientific information to NASA headquarters while it stays in its current orbit, but it just won’t get as close to the giant gassy planet as originally hoped.
Fortunately, because Juno is staying further away from Jupiter than originally planned, the spacecraft should ultimately last longer and this means the mission could stay active longer than planned. On the other hand, Juno is still planned to go out with a bang and eventually enter Jupiter’s atmosphere to burn up when NASA is finished using it.
"Another key advantage of the longer orbit is that Juno will spend less time within the strong radiation belts on each orbit,” said Scott Bolton, Juno principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “This is significant because radiation has been the main life-limiting factor for Juno.”
While some are bummed about the decision, NASA is sure it’s the right choice to make. At least since we’re already there, keeping with the current orbit means there’s little chance they’ll lose the spacecraft because of a poor choice.