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:
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.
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.
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.
Have something to add to this story? Share it in the comments.