NASA Jupiter-bound spacecraft will slingshot around Earth, gain 9,000 MPH tomorrow

NASA says Earth gravity assist boosts spacecraft’s speed from 78,000 to 87,000 MPH.

NASA Juno
NASA said its Juno spacecraft will swing by Earth tomorrow to grab gravity boosts that will slingshot it to its ultimate destination: Jupiter.

 NASA said that on Oct. 9 the four-ton Juno will make its closest approach to Earth - 350 miles above South Africa at about 3:20 EDT.   According to NASA, when  Juno was launched toward Jupiter on August 5, 2011, its rocket provided Juno enough speed to reach the asteroid belt, at which point the Sun's gravity pulled it back toward the inner solar system.

[MORE SPACE: 13 awesome and scary things in near Earth space]

"While we are primarily using Earth as a means to get us to Jupiter, the flight team is also going to check and calibrate Juno's science instruments. As another bonus, Juno is approaching the Earth from deep space, from the Sunlit side. Juno will take never-before-seen images of the Earth-Moon system, giving us a chance to see what we look like from Mars or Jupiter. We plan to release a movie of this unique perspective of the Earth-Moon system shortly after the flyby," said  Dr. Scott Bolton of Southwest Research Institute is the Juno principal investigator in a statement.

Juno, once described as a flying armored tank because of its size,  is expected to arrive at Jupiter on July 4, 2016. Once in orbit around Jupiter, the spacecraft will circle the planet 33 times, from pole to pole, and use its collection of nine science instruments to probe beneath the gas giant's obscuring cloud cover.

NASA has outlined a number of key challenges for Juno:

  • Juno's principal goal is to understand the origin and evolution of Jupiter. Underneath its dense cloud cover, Jupiter safeguards secrets to the fundamental processes and conditions that governed our solar system during its formation. As our primary example of a giant planet, Jupiter can also provide critical knowledge for understanding the planetary systems being discovered around other stars.
  • Juno will determine the global structure and motions of the planet's atmosphere below its colorful cloud tops for the first time, mapping variations in the atmosphere's composition, temperature, clouds and patterns of movement down to unprecedented depths, NASA said.
  • Deep in Jupiter's atmosphere, under great pressure, hydrogen gas is squeezed into a fluid known as metallic hydrogen. At these great depths, the hydrogen acts like an electrically conducting metal which is believed to be the source of the planet's intense magnetic field. This powerful magnetic environment creates the brightest auroras in our solar system, as charged particles precipitate down into the planet's atmosphere. Juno will directly sample the charged particles and magnetic fields near Jupiter's poles for the first time, while simultaneously observing the auroras in ultraviolet light produced by the extraordinary amounts of energy crashing into the polar regions, NASA said.

[MORE SPACE: Fabulous space photos from NASA's Hubble telescope]

Some facts about the spacecraft:

  • When it comes to ensuring that its upcoming Juno spacecraft can survive its mission, NASA surrounded the spacecraft's electronic innards with titanium to ward off radiation. Juno's so-called radiation vault weighs about 200 kilograms (500 pounds), has walls that measure about a square meter (nearly 9 square feet) in area, are about 1 centimeter (a third of an inch) thick and weigh 18 kilograms (40 pounds). About the size of an SUV's trunk - the vault encloses Juno's command and data handling box, power and data distribution unit and about 20 other electronic assemblies, according to NASA.
  • According to NASA Jupiter has sizzling radiation belts surrounding its equatorial region that extend out past one of its moons, Europa, about 650,000 kilometers (400,000 miles).
  • Juno will fly around Jupiter's poles, spending as little time as possible in those radiation belt areas. Engineers also used designs for electronics already approved for the Mars radiation environment, which is harsher than Earth's, though not as harsh as Jupiter's. Parts of the electronics were made from tantalum, or tungsten, another radiation-resistant metal. Some assemblies also have their own mini-vaults for protection, NASA stated.

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