How Do We Get Humans to Europa? NASA Says We Should Extend the Juno Probe Mapping Mission
Sometimes it's the steps that look insignificant at first that turn out to be the most instrumental. Such is the case with NASA's new announcement about extending its Juno Probe mission to Jupiter; another three years mapping the planet could one day ensure humans can explore its moon Europa for alien life.
How? First, let's back up and explain.
Some NASA missions, like Cassini, end in a fiery Grand Finale that blows the spacecraft in question to cosmic dust. Others, like the Mars rover Opportunity, live on far past anyone's expectations (Opportunity celebrated its 5,000th day on the Red Planet this past February, despite plans for its mission to only last 90 days).
Until recently, it seemed as though Juno, the second mission launched in NASA's New Frontiers space exploration program after the groundbreaking mission to Pluto, would fall into the "fiery conclusion" camp, leaving its work on Jupiter unfinished.
Unofficial plans from NASA, however, say there's still time.
After spending five years flying from Earth to Jupiter and two years orbiting the gas giant, the Juno spacecraft has uncovered some amazing things about the solar system's largest planet.
According to NASA:
"Early science results from NASA's Juno mission to Jupiter portray the largest planet in our solar system as a complex, gigantic, turbulent world, with Earth-sized polar cyclones, plunging storm systems that travel deep into the heart of the gas giant, and a mammoth, lumpy magnetic field that may indicate it was generated closer to the planet's surface than previously thought."
However, engine problems discovered in October 2016 kept Juno from carrying out one of its main goals: mapping the surface of Jupiter, especially its magnetic field.
To do this, Juno had to perform a series of maneuvers called "perijoves," where it would dive close to the planet before retreating to a safe distance.
According to Rick Nybakken, Juno's project manager, using the engines became risky:
"During a thorough review, we looked at multiple scenarios that would place Juno in a shorter-period orbit, but there was concern that another main engine burn could result in a less-than-desirable orbit. The bottom line is a burn represented a risk to completion of Juno's science objectives."
Previously, NASA had announced that it would end Juno's mission after July 2018, which included crashing the satellite into Jupiter to prevent an accidental collision of the moon Europa, which may support extraterrestrial life.
Due to NASA's decision to forego the use of the engines, Juno will only be able to complete 14 of the necessary 32 perijoves by next month.
However, Business Insider has learned that NASA apparently has plans to extend the mission to at least July 2021, though the agency hasn't made it official yet.
This would hopefully give Juno enough time to complete its mapping of Jupiter and allow the spacecraft to go out in a blaze of glory, safely out of the way of crashing into the icy oceans of Jupiter's moon Europa, which many scientists say they believe is humanity's best bet for finding alien life in the solar system.
It's unclear if Juno's engines will be used to complete the last set of perijoves, but if the recent jury-rigging of the Curiosity rover is any indication, NASA may be able to figure something out.