In August 2011, a NASA space-bot embarked on a five-year journey to visit our solar system's resident pepperoni-faced, not-quite-a-star Jupiter. This Monday, the first leg of the journey will come to an end when the LEGO-equipped Juno spacecraft enters into a polar orbit around the gaseous behemoth. And then the real science begins.
A handful of probes have visited ol' Biggy McBandsy before, but Juno will only be the second one to enter into orbit (the other one being The Galileo mission). The next part of the mission will last two years and cover 37 orbits around Jupiter before Juno purposefully crash lands into the planet (i.e. engages in "a controlled deorbit") in February 2018.
Juno has a bevy of high-tech imaging tools, which it will use to make detailed observations of Jupiter's poly-belted atmosphere, gravitational fields, and magnetic properties. The spacecraft will even be able to provide unprecedented observations of Jupiter's structures below the cloud tops.
One of the tools NASA is most excited about is the Junocam, which NASA's deputy administrator Dava Newman described to PCMag in an exclusive interview as "our biggest effort in citizen science. The public will help decide what images to capture. As long as we're in orbit, we're going to say, 'Okay,' to the public, 'where do you want it? Help us explore.' It's a huge experiment in citizen science, so you can tell us where you want to look on Jupiter and we'll point the camera." Check the cam's website for more info.
The Juno mission is the second part of NASA's ambitious three-part New Frontiers initiative, which aims to explore major planetary bodies. The first part was the successful (and still active) New Horizons mission, which gave humanity its stunning first up-close views of the not-a-planet Pluto; and the last part is the OSIRIS-REx, mission which launch later this year and will not only land on an asteroid, but will return a sample back to Earth. The competition to choose a fourth New Frontiers mission begins in 2017.