NASA's Juno probe is now orbiting Jupiter, aiming to solve space mysteries

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NASA's Juno spacecraft loops into orbit around Jupiter

PASADENA, Calif. — NASA's pioneering Juno probe to Jupiter has survived a harrowing ride to enter into orbit around the huge planet, the agency announced at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) on Monday.

The celebration followed a nail-biting Fourth of July for scientists and engineers at JPL, where the spacecraft is being monitored following a five-year journey to Jupiter.

Juno is now officially the first probe to orbit Jupiter since the end of the Galileo mission in 2003. The probe will take the highest-ever resolution images of the giant planet, and possibly even discover new moons orbiting the gigantic world.

"Welcome to Jupiter," one of the mission controllers said when orbit was confirmed.

To get into the proper orbit for its scientific mission, Juno's onboard system executed a precise 35-minute rocket engine burn that delivered it through Jupiter's extreme radiation belts and into an orbit around its poles.

Mission control at JPL erupted in clapping and relieved handshakes when it was confirmed that the burn was completed.

Now that Juno is in its prescribed orbit, scientists will use it to learn more about Jupiter than ever before.

More of Jupiter:

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Jupiter Red Spot
This undated composite handout image provided by NASA, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, shows the planet Jupiter and the The Great Red Spot in 2014, left; in 1995, top right; 2009, center right; and 2014, bottom right. Jupiter’s signature Great Red Spot is on a cosmic diet, shrinking rapidly before our eyes. Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope calculate that the spot, a giant long-lasting storm, is narrowing by about 580 miles a year, much faster than before. In the late 1800s the red spot was an elongated oval 25,500 miles wide. Now it’s a svelte circle that’s 10,250 miles across. (AP Photo/NASA)
This image provided by NASA shows the Great Red Spot and Red Spot Jr. — in the turbulent Jovian atmosphere. This third red spot, which is a fraction of the size of the two other features, lies to the west of the Great Red Spot in the same latitude band of clouds. The visible-light images were taken on May 9 and 10 with Hubble's Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2. The new red spot was previously a white oval-shaped storm. The change to a red color indicates its swirling storm clouds are rising to heights like the clouds of the Great Red Spot. One possible explanation is that the red storm is so powerful it dredges material from deep beneath Jupiter's cloud tops and lifts it to higher altitudes where solar ultraviolet radiation — via some unknown chemical reaction — produces the familiar brick color. (AP Photo/NASA)
This image provided by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope Thursday May 4, 2006 shows a second red spot, lower left, emerging on Jupiter. For the first time in history, astronomers have witnessed the birth of a new red spot on the giant planet, which is located half a billion miles away. The storm is roughly one-half the diameter of its bigger and legendary cousin, the Great Red Spot. Researchers suggest that the new spot may be related to a possible major climate change in Jupiter's atmosphere. This image was taken with Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys on April 25, 2006.
This dramatic view of Jupiter's Great Red Spot and its surroundings was obtained by Voyager 1 on Feb. 25, 1979. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
Jupiter's trademark Great Red Spot — a swirling storm feature larger than Earth — is shrinking. This downsizing, which is changing the shape of the spot from an oval into a circle, has been known about since the 1930s, but now these striking new NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope images capture the spot at a smaller size than ever before.
This dramatic view of Jupiter's Great Red Spot and its surroundings was obtained by Voyager 1 on Feb. 25, 1979. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - MAY 13: This photograph taken by Voyager 1 shows a close up of the Great Red Spot on Jupiter, a storm that has been raging in the gas giant�s atmosphere for at least three hundred years. The white spot shows another cloud system that is believed to have formed around 1940. Jupiter�s atmosphere is made up of 90 % hydrogen and almost 10 % helium, together with traces of other gases, including methane and ammonia. Immensely strong winds occur, and the storm clouds exhibit colours which are thought to be due to chemical reactions in the atmosphere. The two Voyager spacecraft were launched in 1977 to explore the planets in the outer solar system. Voyager 1 flew past Jupiter at a distance of 278,000 kilometres in March 1979 before flying on to Saturn. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)
Jupiter fr. equator to southern polar latitudes close to Great Red Spot, as depicted by Voyager spacecraft. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/NASA/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
circa 1973: An artist's impression of a Pioneer probe passing the Great Red Spot on Jupiter during its mission to photograph the planet's surface and send back data. (Photo by NASA/Space Frontiers/Getty Images)
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More science (and moons) than ever before

During its 20-month-mission, the spacecraft will skim only 3,000 miles above Jupiter's cloud tops to gather data about its interior. It will also explore the planet's extreme auroras.

Don't expect to see a slew of new images quite yet, however.

The spacecraft's cameras are turned off currently to protect its sensitive equipment, and will turn on in a few days. The most impressive images Juno will beam back should be captured in August when the probe flies closer to the giant world.

Juno will also likely discover more moons orbiting Jupiter, which already plays host to more than 60 known natural satellites.

"I think there's no question we will probably discover new moons of Jupiter," Juno principal investigator Scott Bolton said during a news conference at JPL.

"Obviously I can't tell you where to look to find those [moons], but I expect that we will see some and the number will keep going up."

The as yet undiscovered moons may be hiding in orbits never explored by human-built spacecraft or telescopes, but Juno could be the one to find them.

Learning about our beginnings

Scientists want to know more about how Jupiter's magnetic fields are formed and its structure in order to piece together the history of the solar system.

Jupiter was likely one of the first planets to form in this part of space, and it may have influenced the orbits of every other planet we see in the solar system today. But scientists still aren't exactly sure what that means for our cosmic history.

Was Jupiter on its way to being another star 4 billion years ago when the solar system formed? Did Jupiter migrate in towards the sun after forming farther out? What are the mechanics of Jupiter's extreme auroras, the most powerful in the solar system?

Hopefully Juno will provide some answers to those mysteries and many more by using its scientific instrumentation.

"Juno is searching for hints about our beginnings," Juno principal investigator Scott Bolton said during a press conference earlier Monday. "These secrets are well-guarded by Jupiter."

Surviving a terrifying journey

Scientists and engineers were particularly nervous about Juno's orbital insertion because of Jupiter's extreme radiation environment.

To help protect the sensitive instrumentation onboard, NASA built a vault in an attempt keep a good deal of harmful radiation away from the science-gathering tools.

Artist's illustration of Jupiter's magnetic fields.

Image: NASA

The Juno team also turned off all of the craft's scientific instruments ahead of the flyby to help protect them from radiation and any dust that might slam into the spacecraft, damaging it during orbit insertion.

Over the next couple of days, the team will start to turn on the instrumentation and check how it fared during the maneuver, allowing the difficult work of scientific discovery to begin.

"We're going to get the answers we've been seeking about the beginning of our solar system," Bolton said.

Cosmic toys circling Jupiter

Juno's "orbital insertion" means that three Lego figures are also now in orbit around Jupiter.

NASA sent a Lego Galileo Galilei, Roman god Jupiter and Jupiter's wife Juno to the planet, housed within the spacecraft.

Juno's Legos.

Image: NASA

The craft is also carrying a plaque dedicated to Galileo, who discovered the moons Europa, Io, Callisto and Ganymede orbiting Jupiter in 1610.

Eventually, Juno and its stowaways will burn up in Jupiter's atmosphere after it completes its mission in mid-October.

NASA engineers on the ground will command Juno to fall into Jupiter's clouds in order to protect any possible microbial life on Europa from Earthly contamination.

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