6 Aug 2011

Spacecraft takes off for Jupiter, ETA 2016

2:04 pm on 6 August 2011

A mission of exploration to Jupiter has begun, with the launch of an unmanned solar-powered spacecraft called Juno from Cape Canaveral in Florida.

On the first solar-powered mission to venture so far from the sun, Juno will cruise beyond Mars to put itself into orbit around the largest planet in the solar system in 2016.

The mission launched atop an Atlas 5 rocket at 12.25 local time on Friday after a brief delay caused by a helium leak.

The aim of the mission, the BBC reports, is to probe the secrets of the solar system by explaining the origin and evolution of its biggest planet.

The chief scientist for the project says Jupiter holds the secret to understanding how all the planets were formed.

At Jupiter, where the intensity of sunlight is only 1/25th of that at Earth, space missions would normally resort to a plutonium battery.

But Juno will instead travel with three wings coated with 18,000 solar cells that must always be kept facing the sun and out of Jupiter's shadow.

The spacecraft's remote sensing instruments will look down into the gas giant through many layers and measure their composition, temperature, motion and other properties.

Scientists also want to measure the abundance of water in the atmosphere - an indicator of how much oxygen was present in Jupiter's region of the solar system when it formed.

The probe will also try to settle old arguments over whether the planet hosts a rocky core or whether its gases go all the way down to the centre in an ever more compressed state.

Juno is the second in NASA's so-called New Frontiers missions. The first, New Horizons, was launched towards Pluto in 2006 and should get there in 2015.