NASA Extends Jupiter and Mars Missions

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NASA builds its hardware to last. Missions like Curiosity, Hubble, and New Horizons have survived long past their initial design life. This allows NASA to wring out every bit of science from its most successful missions, and now you can add Juno and InSight to the list. NASA has given both robotic explorers a new lease on life, and Juno will expand its focus to include Jupiter’s moons. 

The InSight mission launched in May 2018 and landed on the red planet later that year. It set down in Elysium Planitia, deploying the first-ever seismometer on another planet. It also has a tunneling temperature probe that has been a pain to get underground. NASA has only started reporting success there. 

A NASA senior review panel decided that both InSight and Juno were likely to deliver substantial scientific benefits if they are funded to operate longer. InSight’s next phase is straightforward. This is a stationary lander, so NASA can’t decide to send it someplace else. NASA will, however, continue to use InSight to collect data from Elysium Planitia through December 2022. 

The situation with Juno is somewhat different. This orbiter has been making long, swooping passes of the planet Jupiter since its arrival in 2016. It has since completed 30 passes of the planet, returning data on its magnetic field, clouds, and gravity. According to project scientists, Juno is still in good shape and should be able to explore the Jovian system more extensively by pushing the number of orbits to 76. This follows a previous three-year extension in 2018.

The InSight lander on Mars.

During its extended mission, Juno will be able to visit three of the four Galilean moons of Jupiter, the largest and arguably most interesting of the planet’s 79 total satellites. According to NASA’s preliminary research plan, Juno will fly within 1,000 kilometers (about 621 miles) of Ganymede this coming summer. That’s the largest of the solar system’s moons. In 2022, Juno will skim Europa at an altitude of just 320 kilometers (about 198 miles). Europa, of course, is famous for its global ice sheet that most likely conceals a liquid ocean. Finally, in 2024, Juno will spring past the volcanically active moon Io at a distance of 1,500 kilometers (about 932 miles). 

Juno will be able to study the topography of these moons in unprecedented detail, and scientists will be able to compare the Juno data to Voyager data from decades ago. It may even be able to map the thickness of Europa’s ice sheet, which will come in handy if any of the proposed sub-surface exploration programs ever come to fruition. It could also give a boost to the upcoming Europa Clipper mission that will explore the moon in detail early in the next decade.

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