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NASA Juno spacecraft to 'jump' Jupiter's shadow to avoid freezing to death

Jupiter's looming shadow threatened to knock out the solar-powered spacecraft.

Jupiter's south pole

Citizen-scientist Alex Mai enhanced images taken by NASA's Jupiter-visiting Juno spacecraft in 2016 to create this glowing view of Jupiter's south pole.   

NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Mai

The sun gives life to solar-powered space explorers far away from Earth, so a loss of sunlight bodes ill. NASA's Opportunity rover died during a massive dust storm on Mars. NASA doesn't want the same thing to happen to its Jupiter-orbiting Juno spacecraft.

Juno's next close flyby of Jupiter is scheduled for Nov. 3. But there was a hitch: Juno's trajectory would have plunged the spacecraft into Jupiter's shadow for 12 long hours. It would have been the death knell for Juno's batteries and could have ended the mission prematurely, so NASA had to act.

The space agency commanded Juno to execute an extended propulsive maneuver that lasted 10.5 hours, starting Monday and continuing into Tuesday. Juno should now be able to "jump" Jupiter's shadow on its next flyby and avoid freezing to death.

NASA already adjusted its Juno flight plans early in the mission, which is why the shadow issue hadn't originally been anticipated. The Juno team had to get creative and call on the spacecraft's reaction-control thrusters to save the mission. If this was a movie, we'd be hearing sweeping, dramatic music during a thruster-firing montage.

"Jumping over the shadow was an amazingly creative solution to what seemed like a fatal geometry. Eclipses are generally not friends of solar-powered spacecraft," said Juno principal investigator Scott Bolton. "Now instead of worrying about freezing to death, I am looking forward to the next science discovery that Jupiter has in store for Juno."  

That also means our regular fix of fabulous Jupiter images will keep on coming. Hurrah!

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