Juno skims Jupiter's pole in first orbital flyby

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Image returned from Juno of Jupiter's north pole(Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS)

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NASA's Juno orbiter has made its first and nearest orbital flyby of Jupiter, snapping the closest close-up ever of giant planet's north pole. The unmanned probe made its 130,000 mph (208,000 km/h) approach at 6:44 am PDT (13:44 GMT) on Saturday, passing within 2,600 mi (4,200 km) of Jupiter's cloud tops in the first and closest of 36 flybys it will make during its mission. NASA expects to release some of the images it captured – including the highest-resolution images ever taken of the planet and the first of its north and south poles – over the next two weeks.

The flyby was anxiously watched by mission control because this was not only the nearest that any probe has ever come to Jupiter, but also because the close pass was designed to avoid the planet's deadly bands of radiation. NASA says that the orbiter came through unscathed and that telemetry indicates that it is in good health. This was also the first time that all of Juno's scientific instruments were online at the same time.

Juno was launched in August 2011 and arrived at Jupiter on July 4 this year after a roundabout journey that sent it on a flyby of Earth in 2013. Its purpose is to return the highest-resolution images of Jupiter in history with a special emphasis on the north and south polar regions. In addition, it will study Jupiter's early history, determine the deep structure of the planet, and study its magnetic fields and the giant aurorae at the poles.

NASA says that there are 35 more flybys of Jupiter scheduled for its 20-month mission with Saturday's the nearest of the lot. On February 20, 2018, it will make a controlled dive into the Jovian atmosphere, where it will burn up to avoid biological contamination of Jupiter's moons.

"We are getting some intriguing early data returns as we speak," says Scott Bolton, principal investigator of Juno. "It will take days for all the science data collected during the flyby to be downlinked and even more to begin to comprehend what Juno and Jupiter are trying to tell us."

The space agency expects to release high-resolution images from the flyby over the next two weeks as they are received and processed.

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