NASA’s Juno spacecraft will orbit Jupiter an additional three years, according to mission leaders.
The billion dollar probe fell behind schedule as a result of technical problems that prevented scientists from speeding the spacecraft’s orbit as planned. Juno was supposed to be making an orbit every 14 days, but a valve problem kept them from firing the engines again, keeping the probe in its original 53 day orbit.
“You’re looking at a once in a generation or less mission,” said Scott Bolton, principal investigator and associate vice president at the Southwest Research Institute. “Maybe you can send a mission to Jupiter every 20 years, so once you have that investment and an idea and a design that actually works it’s incredibly valuable.”
Juno entered Jupiter’s orbit roughly two years ago. Since then, its been sending back detailed images of the planet’s Great Red Spot, its rarely seen poles and even peered beneath the giant planet’s clouds. To complete the mapping of Jupiter will take 34 orbits.
“To really understand Jupiter, you need to map it,” Bolton said. “If you were mapping Earth you wouldn’t just fly over the United States.”
The mission has redefined the science community’s understanding of the planet, said Bolton, pointing to what they have learned about the planet’s magnetosphere, its core — or lack of one — and the depth of its atmosphere.
NASA will model future missions after Juno, he said.
“Jupiter is really important because its giving you that first step in understanding how planets are made,” he said. “That helps you understand the whole picture of how important Jupiter is to our system and how important giant planets are to the galaxy and the universe.”
Juno’s orbit, which was planned to end this year, will continue into 2021, with the science analysis occuring into 2022.