Following its latest close flyby of Jupiter – passing just 4,200 km (2,600 mi) above the gas giant’s cloud tops on February 2nd, 2017, NASA’s Juno mission spacecraft is now heading away from the planet once more and the next of its 53.5 day orbits. As I’ve previously reported in these Space Sunday columns, the original plan had been to use one of these close passes over the planet (October 2016), in conjunction with a sustained burn of the spacecraft’s British-built rocket motor, to move it into a short, 14-day period orbit around Jupiter.
However, a potential fault detected within the engine system meant the October burn was cancelled, and since then, engineers had been trying to assess if the issue – a set of faulty valves – could be overcome, and the consequences of attempting an additional engine burn if not. No definitive answer has been found and so, following the February 2nd flyby, the decision was taken to cancel all plans for the engine burn and leave the spacecraft in its current 53.5 day orbit around Jupiter.
Doing so doesn’t compromise the overall mission objectives, but it does reduce the number of close passes over Jupiter the vehicle can make. If the reduced orbital period had been possible, the spacecraft would have made some 30 close flybys over Jupiter’s cloud tops during the primary mission period, set to end in July 2018. Remaining in the 53.5 day orbit means it will only make around 12 such close flybys in the same period.
A positive point with the spacecraft remaining in its more extended orbit is that it will spend less time within the harsher regions of Jupiter’s radiation belts, and could thus remain active for longer than the primary mission period – and mission planners are already considering applying for further funding to allow the mission to extend beyond July 2018. It also means that the spacecraft will be able to engage in additional science activities.
The close encounters with Jupiter have already allowed the spacecraft to probe deep within the planet’s cloud belts and discover they extend far deeper into the planet’s atmosphere than had been imagined, and that Jupiter’s magnetic field and auroras are more powerful than previously thought.
“Juno is providing spectacular results, and we are rewriting our ideas of how giant planets work,” Juno principal investigator Scott Bolton, of the South-west Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, said of the decision to leave the spacecraft in its current orbit. “The science will be just as spectacular as with our original plan.”
NASA Considering Crewed Option for Orion / SLS First Launch
NASA is considering making the first launch of its new Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, currently slated for September 2018, a crewed mission.
Under the agency’s existing plans, the first launch of the new rocket, topped by an Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and dubbed Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), would have seen SLS send an uncrewed Orion vehicle to the Moon and back, with around 6 days spent in lunar orbit. A crewed flight of the SLS / Orion combination would not take place until at least 2021, when crew would use Orion to rendezvous to a small asteroid previously captured via robotic means and moved to an extended orbit around the Moon – an idea which has garnered a certain amount of criticism from politicians.
If approved, the new proposal – put forward by NASA’s Acting Administrator, Robert Lightfoot – would see the planned EM-1 mission pushed back to 2018 (allowing the Orion vehicle to be outfitted with the crew lift support and flight systems) and flown with a crew of two. While this would mean a delay in the initial launch of SLS / Orion, it could ultimately accelerate NASA’s plans, allowing the agency to present a wider choice of crewed missions in the 2020s, and respond to criticism that it is not doing enough to demonstrate how it plans to achieve a return to the Moon and / or missions to Mars.
Enceladus: Cradle for Life?
On February 17th, 2005 NASA’s Cassini space probe, part of the Cassini / Huygen mission, made its first flyby of Saturn’s moon Enceladus.
Scientists were naturally curious about the 500 km (360 mi) diameter moon, which is the most reflective object in the solar system, but assumed it was essentially a dead, airless world. However, Cassini immediately found this was not the case.
The first thing that happened was the magnetometer on the spacecraft revealed that Saturn’s magnetic field, which envelops Enceladus, was perturbed above the moon’s south pole in a way that didn’t make sense for an inactive world – it was as if there was some interaction with an atmosphere.
In the second flyby, a month later, Cassini found the interaction seemed to suggest a plume of water vapour was rising from the moon. Then, in the third flyby, in July 2005, the probe imaged geysers of water vapour erupting from the moon’s south polar region, and thus Enceladus became the target of intense study. So much so, that while only those initial 3 flybys of the moon had been a part of the primary Cassini /Huygens mission profile, the mission was updated to allow 20 more flyby of the moon.
Today, we know that beneath the mantle of ice enclosing Enceladus there is an ocean of liquid water – the geysers are the results of that water breaking through this ice and jetting into space, giving rise to Saturn’s E-ring in the process. This ocean is likely to be warmed and kept liquid by hydrothermal vents on the sea floor, and these in turn – just like the vents theorised to be on the ocean floor of Jupiter’s Europa – might provide all the ingredients for basic life to arise.
To celebrate the 12th anniversary of Cassini’s discoveries with Enceladus, NASA has released a video documenting those initial findings from 2005.