Thu, Jul 14, 2016 - Page 7 News List

Juno sends first image back from Jupiter orbit

NY Times News Service, NEW YORK

A photograph taken by the Juno spacecraft on Sunday and released by NASA on Tuesday shows Jupiter’s Great Red Spot and three of its four largest moons.

Photo: AP / NASA

So it did happen. The Juno spacecraft really did reach Jupiter.

JunoCam, the electronic photographer affixed to the NASA spacecraft that locked into orbit around Jupiter on Monday last week, has now met the bar set in the Instagram age — pictures or it did not happen.

The images transmitted back to Earth after Juno began orbiting Jupiter confirm the beginning of the space probe’s 20-month mission around the solar system’s largest planet.

Until now, Juno’s nascent path around Jupiter had been tracked by signals it was sending back, but NASA on Tuesday released an image taken by the satellite on Sunday from a distance of 4.35 million kilometers; it even shows the Great Red Spot, although the famous storm has been shrinking in recent decades and might not be as great as it once was.

“We’re quite pleased that we survived going through Jupiter orbit insertion,” said Candice Hansen-Koharcheck, a scientist at Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, who is responsible for the operation of the camera. “The fact it’s a beautiful image is already a good thing.”

The spacecraft’s camera had been turned off as it approached Jupiter and was only switched back on, along with other instruments, once the solar-powered probe survived its passage through the planet’s massive radiation barrages.

As Juno moves outward on a 53-day orbit, it will be taking about four images per hour even as the size of Jupiter diminishes with the growing distance.

The mission has been relying on amateur astronomers to keep watch on what is going on in Jupiter’s clouds, but the planet will soon be out of sight from Earth for a couple of months, behind the sun.

By using Juno’s pictures, the scientists will be able to note any big changes in Jupiter’s appearance.

“Stuff we’ll able to resolve, we’ll be able to keep an eye on while they’re essentially blinded,” Hansen-Koharcheck said.

At the end of the month, Juno will reach the farthest point of its orbit and then swing back around, passing within 4,184km of Jupiter’s cloudtops on Aug. 27 for its first close approach with all of the instruments turned on.

Juno will provide the first good views of Jupiter’s north and south poles, and scientists are curious to know whether turbulent vortices swirl in the polar regions as they do on Saturn.

On later orbits, Juno will continue photographing the poles, but where else the camera will focus will be open to a vote by the public.

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