On Thursday, February 1st, 2017, NASA’s Juno spacecraft completed its fourth 53.5 day orbit of Jupiter since its arrival on July 4th, 2016. The vehicle, reached perijove – the point at which it is closest to Jupiter’s cloud tops at 12:57 GMT (07:57 EST), just 4,300 km (2,670 mi) above the cloud top at a velocity of about 208,000 km/h (129,300 mph) relative to the planet.
As there were no plans to utilise the craft’s main engine to slow the craft into a 14-day orbit around Jupiter – a issue with a potentially faulty set of valves in the motor system is still being investigated – the spacecraft was able to conduct a “close-up” data gathering exercise as it swept around Jupiter, gathering data on atmospheric radiation and plasma.
Also active during the flyover was the spacecraft’s imaging system, dubbed “JunoCam”. This has already captured some stunning images of Jupiter during past perijoves, and the hope is it will have done so again. Thanks to an outreach programme in which NASA invite “citizen scientists” to download raw JunoCam images and process them at their leisure, together with a programme that allows the public to suggest areas the camera might image during each perijove, JunoCam has become extremely popular.
The next close flyby will be on March 27th. It’s not clear yet whether this will be a science pass, or whether the Juno Mission team will risk firing the vehicle’s motor to slow it into the planned 14-day orbit. If they do, then the science suite will likely be powered down to conserve electrical power during the manoeuvre.
But even if Juno doesn’t achieve that final 14-day orbit, its science mission will not be unduly compromised. The craft will be able to meet all of its mission goals even if it remains in the 53.5-day polar orbit it currently occupies.
The Jovian system is a place of intrigue. Not only is Jupiter a potential key to helping us understand the evolution of such gas giant planets, it sits at the centre of a gigantic magnetosphere so vast and powerful, it extends 5 million kilometres (3 million miles) towards the Sun, and reaches out as far as the orbit of Saturn – 651 million kilometres (407 million miles) – in the other direction.
All of Jupiter’s Galilean moons, Callisto, Ganymede, Europa and Io, orbit within this magnetosphere, “bubble” and are affected by it. However, it is innermost Io which has the greatest interaction, and a proposal has been put forward to have Juno examine the relationship between Io and Jupiter in greater detail.
With Jupiter on one side, and the other three big moons on the other, Io, roughly 320 km (200 mi) small in diameter than the Moon, is constantly being flexed by the opposing gravitational forces. This flexing physically manifests in the moon being the most volcanically active place in the solar system. At any given time, Io has an estimated 300 active volcanoes belching sulphur, sulphur dioxide gas and fragments of basaltic rock up into the space above itself to interact with Jupiter’s magnetosphere.
As the material from the eruptions rise from Io, it is bombarded by high-energy electrons withing Jupiter’s magnetsphere. These ionise the ejected material, forming a vast plasma torus of highly energised (aka radioactive) particles around the Jupiter and straddling Io’s orbit. In addition, Jupiter’s magnetic field also couples Io’s polar atmosphere to the planet’s polar regions, pumping this ionised material through two “pipelines” to the magnetic poles and generating a powerful electric current known as the Io flux tube, which can most visibly be seen (if you are close enough) as Jupiter’s polar aurora.