NASA Juno Spacecraft Narrowly Avoids Mission-Ending Eclipse to Reveal a New Cyclone the Size of Texas Brewing on Jupiter’s South Pole
The NASA Juno spacecraft was almost blotted out forever when a mission-ending eclipse threatened to cut off its power supply, and the navigators' evasive maneuvers revealed a new addition to the nest of cyclones brewing on Jupiter's southern pole, according to reports from Space.Com.
Scott Bolton, who is a Juno principal investigator at the Southwest Research Institute, walked us through the saga in an official statement from NASA. "We realized that the orbit was going to carry Juno into Jupiter's shadow, which could have grave consequences because we're solar powered. No sunlight means no power, so there was real risk we might freeze to death."
The Mars Opportunity rover suffered a similar tragedy when a massive dust storm blotted out all sunlight. The solar panels couldn't get enough light to charge, and the rover died.
Bolton continued, "While the team was trying to figure out how to conserve energy and keep our core heated, the engineers came up with a completely new way out of the problem: Jump Jupiter's shadow."
The solution? Perform what is called a "rocket burn" a few weeks before the eclipse when Juno was as far away from the planet as possible, then adjust the probe's trajectory to just barely miss the eclipse. This required using the probe's reaction control system, which wasn't built for these types of maneuvers. It was a long shot – and their only shot.
And it paid off. "It was nothing less than a navigation stroke of genius. Lo and behold, first thing out of the gate on the other side, we make another fundamental discovery," said Bolton.
A 2016 Juno flyby on Jupiter's southern pole had revealed six cyclones tightly clustered together. Scientists weren't certain whether they were ongoing or would dissipate over time. When Juno "jumped" Jupiter's shadow, it captured the image of a seventh cyclone that had formed and joined the fray. This "storm of storms" isn't just stable – it's growing.
This new cyclone is the size of the state of Texas, while the largest of the storms could engulf the entire continental United States. Although it's a smaller storm, measurements indicate that its 225 mph average wind speed already matches the larger cyclones.
"Thanks to our navigators and engineers, we still have a mission," Bolton said. "What they did is more than just make our cyclone discovery possible; they made possible the new insights and revelations about Jupiter that lie ahead of us."