NASA’s Juno Spacecraft Set for Fourth of July Arrival at Jupiter

The coolest Fourth of July party of all is going down in Jupiter orbit.

by Becky Ferreira
Jul 4 2016, 9:00am

Concept drawing of Juno orbiter. Image: NASA

On Monday, Americans will celebrate the Fourth of July with fireworks, barbeques, and half-baked renditions of Bill Pullman's speech from Independence Day. This year, there will be even more reason to raise a glass to national pride, because NASA's Juno orbiter is slated to arrive at Jupiter around 11:18 PM (Eastern time) Monday evening.

Juno has spent five years traveling towards its destination, and has already produced some awesome observations as it has reached the final stretch of its journey. For instance, check out the "roar" of Jupiter's magnetic field as Juno crossed into its magnetosphere.

Talk about a literally otherworldly sound. The short recording is an exciting preview of all the weird insights Juno is expected to provide about Jupiter, provided it successfully parks itself in orbit around the planet. If anything goes wrong with the orbital insertion, however, the $1.1 billion probe will be lost in space, which might put a damper on Independence Day festivities. Getting captured by a planet's gravity, especially a behemoth like Jupiter, sounds easy until you factor in that Juno will be hurtling through space at around 215 times the speed of sound. One wrong move and it will sail right on by.

"Everything is riding on what happens July 4th," said Scott Bolton, the Juno mission's principal investigator, during a recent press conference. "If something goes wrong, we're not getting any science."

No pressure, Juno! If you'd like to keep tabs on the orbiter's progress, NASA's Eyes App will be posting visual updates.

If everything goes off without a hitch, Juno will spend the next three months relaying initial observations along to its team on Earth. Then, on October 19, it will execute another burn that will place it in a highly elliptical 14-day polar orbit around Jupiter—a useful vantage point for studying the planet's magnetic and gravity fields, water content, and cloud behavior.

Mission leads hope this data will clarify Jupiter's formation, planetary evolution, and mass distribution. It should also result in some spectacular images of the gas giant's colorful storms, cloud patterns, and auroras. Juno is expected to orbit until February 2018, when it will boldly self-immolate in the Jovian atmosphere to avoid contaminating Jupiter's moons, which may host life.

Independence Day may have become popularly associated with hostile alien takeovers of Earth, but on Monday, Juno will reverse the trope by peacefully representing Earthlings at a foreign planetary system, without even one city-destroying death ray. Good job, America.