Braving intense radiation, NASA’s Juno spacecraft successfully completed its first low-altitude swing around Jupiter early Saturday, passing within about 2,600 miles of the giant planet’s cloud tops at a velocity of some 130,000 mph, the space agency said.
A single image posted on NASA’s Juno web page showed a half-lighted Jupiter and its great red spot, along with numerous atmospheric bands and swirls. Much higher resolution images are expected to be posted in the next few weeks as mission scientists process downlinked data and telemetry.
“Early post-flyby telemetry indicates that everything worked as planned and Juno is firing on all cylinders,” Rick Nybakken, Juno project manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said in a NASA statement.
Scott Bolton, the Juno principal investigator at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, said “we are in an orbit nobody has ever been in before, and these images give us a whole new perspective on this gas-giant world.”
Juno was launched Aug. 5, 2011, atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket. After an Earth flyby in 2013 to pick up additional speed, Juno headed into the outer solar system, braking into a highly elliptical orbit around Jupiter’s poles on July 4.
On July 31, the solar-powered spacecraft reached the high point of that 53-day orbit and began falling back toward Jupiter, making its first post-capture close approach Saturday at 9:44 a.m. EDT (GMT-4).
Juno will fly through one more 53-day orbit before a critical Oct. 19 rocket firing that will drastically lower the high point of the ellipse, putting the spacecraft in a planned 14-day science orbit, repeatedly passing between 2,600 and 4,900 miles above Jupiter’s cloud tops.
During the Jupiter orbit insertion maneuver July 4, Juno’s camera and science instruments were turned off. But the full suite of instruments was operating Saturday, collecting data about Jupiter’s deep interior, its powerful magnetic field, the radiation environment and the hidden structure of its stormy atmosphere.
“We are getting some intriguing early data returns as we speak,” Bolton said in the NASA statement. “It will take days for all the science data collected during the flyby to be downlinked and even more to begin to comprehend what Juno and Jupiter are trying to tell us.”
The image released Saturday was captured before closest approach, at a distance of about 437,000 miles.