Juno space probe stuck in wide orbit around Jupiter

Nasa’s Jupiter-circling spacecraft is stuck making long trips around the gas giant because of sticky valves.

It currently takes Juno 53 days to fly around the solar system’s biggest planet, which is almost four times longer than the intended 14-day orbit.

After repeated delays, Nasa decided late last week to forego an engine firing that would have shortened the orbit. Officials said the manoeuvre poses too much of a risk.

Nasa said the quality of science will not be affected, but it will take more time to gather the data, given Juno’s longer loops.

The mission will have to be extended at a cost of tens of millions of extra dollars if scientists are to collect everything under the original plan. It is already a billion-dollar mission.

Juno has been circling Jupiter since July after undergoing a five-year journey to reach the planet. 

On the plus side, according to scientists, Juno will now spend less time in Jupiter’s abrasive radiation belts.

“The decision to forego the burn is the right thing to do – preserving a valuable asset so that Juno can continue its exciting journey of discovery,” said Nasa’s Thomas Zurbuchen, the science mission associate administrator. He added that the pictures from Juno “are nothing short of amazing”.

Juno is able to peer through Jupiter’s clouds to see what is going on in the atmosphere.

Scientists want to better understand how the planet – the fifth from our Sun, with at least 67 moons – originated and evolved.

Every orbit, Juno swoops within 2,600 miles of Jupiter’s cloud tops. The most recently completed orbit was three weeks ago, while the next close flyby will come at the end of March.

Whenever Juno’s mission does end, the spacecraft will end up diving into Jupiter’s atmosphere and burning up, meteor-style. It was launched in 2011 from Cape Canaveral.

Last year it was discovered that Jupiter's Great Red Spot was heating the upper atmosphere to temperatures unseen anywhere else on the planet.

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