Consider this: a lineage of apes began making tools a couple million years ago, wresting stones from the earth to make crude choppers and axes. A bit later we had arrowheads, and then spears. And then the wheel. Only six thousand years after the wheel, those apes had progressed to where they could wrest sufficiently diverse materials from the Earth and air to make rocket ships and space probes, sending them 3.6 billion miles away and delicately placing them into orbit around the largest planet in our Solar System. Yes, at 10:19 last night Chicago time, the Juno space probe was deliberately slowed down and successfully captured by Jupiter, where it will orbit, taking photographs of the Giant Planet from beneath its gas clouds. It will see, for instance, what kind of core Jupiter has, and whether there is any water (aka ice), or traces of past water. After two years and just 37 orbits (it’s a big planet), the craft will die a glorious death, plunging toward Jupiter and burning up—mission complete.
What thrills me, and fills me with admiration for our species, is that we did this solely with our brains and with materials that could be found only under the ground or extracted from the air. It is an absolutely stunning achievement, one that makes me tear up. It’s celebrated in today’s animated Google Doodle:
If you’re really into this, go watch the livestream from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab.
To read more about this mission, see today’s article in the Atlantic, clearly written beforehand with the expectation of success. (It was published two minutes after midnight last night—an hour after capture.) One quote to show the magnitude of this achievement. Look at the speed (my emphasis)!
“We just did the hardest thing NASA’s ever done,” Rick Nybakken, Juno’s project manager, could be heard telling his colleagues amid cheers in the moments after the spacecraft completed its task.
The successful maneuver, known as an orbital insertion, was executed via a series of pre-programmed commands that engineers transmitted hundreds of millions of miles to the outer solar system. The move, which represented the riskiest moment in the mission since Juno launched in August 2011, involved firing the spacecraft’s main engine so that the probe could slow down enough to leverage the planet’s gravity for a shift into its orbit.
Had things gone differently, Juno would have spun off into space. There was plenty else that could go wrong. The New York Times, for instance, kept this running list of doomsday possibilities in the hours leading up to the maneuver: “Juno blows up… The engine doesn’t fire at all… It crashes into something… It flies too close to Jupiter and is ripped to pieces… The computer crashes.”
Confirmation that the probe had successfully entered Jupiter’s orbit came with a curt three-second beep. About 45 minutes later, it was clear that the probe had cleared another key hurdle; its huge solar arrays had successfully turned back toward the sun—the necessary orientation to keep the spacecraft going. Now, Juno is embarking on a science mission that will take humankind closer to Jupiter than ever before, within about 2,600 miles of the planet’s cloud tops.
Even before tonight, however, Juno had already made history. It is the fastest human-made object ever built; at a speed of 165,000 miles per hour, it’s five times faster than New Horizons, seven times faster than Apollo 11, and 122 times faster than the Concorde. In January, Juno broke the record to become humanity’s most distant solar-powered envoy. “Prior to Juno, eight spacecraft have navigated the cold, harsh under-lit realities of deep space as far out as Jupiter,” NASA wrote at the time. “All have used nuclear power sources to get their job done.”
Here’s the tense situation at mission control, and the joy when success was achieved. I am so happy this succeeded! “Welcome to Jupiter” indeed! I can’t wait for the photos.
Here’s NASA’s time-lapse movie, taken by Juno, showing its approach to the planet and a look at its moons—the same moons Galileo saw through his telescope so many years ago (cheesy music by Vangelis). It was taken from June 12 to June 29.