Juno at Jupiter
An illustration of NASA's Juno spacecraft in orbit around Jupiter. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

WASHINGTON — NASA’s Juno spacecraft is set to enter orbit around Jupiter late July 4, project managers said June 30, as the agency also announced an unusual partnership with a major corporation to support public outreach related to the mission.

At a June 30 press briefing at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, mission manager Ed Hirst said the final commands needed for the spacecraft to perform its orbital insertion maneuver have been uploaded to the spacecraft, which the spacecraft will carry out autonomously.

“Once those commands are sent, it will be hands-off from the team here on the ground,” he said at the briefing. JPL confirmed after the briefing that those commands had been sent, putting the spacecraft on autopilot for the July 4 maneuver.

“We’ll continue to monitor the spacecraft and make sure everything is executing as we expect it to execute, but the spacecraft is on its own and it’s designed to take care of itself along with all of the command sequences that we’ve sent it,” Hirst said.

The key element of that maneuver is a 35-minute burn by the spacecraft’s main engine, scheduled to begin at 11:18 p.m. Eastern time July 4. That burn will slow Juno down enough to capture it into orbit around the giant planet. A second maneuver in October will place the place the spacecraft into its final science orbit, a 14-day polar orbit around Jupiter.

Although the July 4 maneuver is the only chance to place Juno into orbit, project officials were confident that it would take place as planned. The main engine has been fired twice before since the spacecraft’s 2011 launch, and the spacecraft can still enter orbit if the engine burns for as little as 20 minutes.

Nonetheless, scientists involved with the mission find the maneuver a little nerve-wracking. “I have mixed emotions,” said Scott Bolton, principal investigator for the mission from the Southwest Research Institute. “I’m excited with anticipation, of course, because we’re finally arriving, but I also have tension and nervousness because there’s a lot riding on what happens July 4.”

The $1.1-billion mission, the second in NASA’s New Frontiers line of medium-class planetary science missions, is designed to study Jupiter’s interior and magnetosphere. Scientists hope to learn in particular the water content of Jupiter’s atmosphere as well as what kind of core the planet has, information that could provide new insights into the formation of not just Jupiter but also the entire solar system.

“What Juno’s really about is learning about the recipe of how solar systems are made,” Bolton said. “Scientists really don’t understand how the planets are made.”

Juno’s mission is made particularly challenging by the harsh radiation environment around Jupiter, as its magnetic field accelerates charged particles to near the speed of light. The spacecraft carries significant shielding to protect instruments and electronics from that radiation. Nonetheless, engineers expect the spacecraft to suffer some degradation of performance during the mission, which will end in early 2018.

At a separate JPL briefing June 30, NASA announced a partnership with Apple to help promote the mission. Apple released a nine-minute video about the mission featuring Bolton and several musicians. The company also released songs by several recording artists in a variety of genres, from rock to country, inspired in some way by Juno.

Bolton said the purpose of the collaboration was to encourage outreach not just in the sciences, but also the arts. “That’s what this collaboration represents. It was great to work with and learn that Apple had that same vision of science, art, and technology,” he said.

The collaboration is being handled through a non-reimbursable Space Act Agreement, said Diane Brown, Juno program executive at NASA Headquarters, similar to other agreements NASA has signed with entertainment companies in the past. “There’s no transfer of funds either way,” she said.

That collaboration will continue after Juno enters orbit. Robert Kondrk, vice president of content and media apps at Apple, said the company will release an “interactive guide” about the mission in the fall. “As musicians become inspired by this mission, we encourage them to reach out to us,” he said, “because we can make more music.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...