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‘Juno, welcome to Jupiter’: Probe goes into orbit

Jupiter and Io
Jupiter and its moon Io show up in the last image taken by the JunoCam instrument on NASA’s Juno spacecraft before instruments were powered down for orbital insertion. The June 29 picture was taken from a distance of 3.3 million miles from Jupiter. (Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / SwRI / MSSS)

NASA’s farthest-out solar-powered probe, the Juno spacecraft, successfully entered orbit around Jupiter tonight after a five-year, 1.8 billion-mile cruise through interplanetary space – and many hours’ worth of high tension back on Earth.

Mission managers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California had to program Juno’s computer in advance to execute a 35-minute rocket engine firing that put the probe in the correct orbit. If anything went wrong, Juno could have zoomed right past Jupiter, and flight controllers couldn’t have done anything about it.

It took 48 minutes for signals to travel from the spacecraft to Earth at the speed of light, which meant no one on Earth knew that the engine burn had even started until 13 minutes after it was over. Mission managers said the engine burn was just 1 second off what was planned.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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