NASA announced on Friday that the Juno spacecraft, which is designed to explore the Jupiter system, is now just 11.1 million miles and 26 days away from its intended destination in space.
On Monday, July 4, the space probe will activate its main rockets for 35 minutes in order to get itself aligned with the giant gas planet's polar orbit.
NASA expects this latest endeavor to be a daring mission, as Jupiter is known to have the harshest levels of radiation in the Solar System. Developers of the Juno spacecraft made sure that it is well equipped to fully explore the gas giant's environment.
Scott Bolton, lead investigator for the Juno mission from the Southwest Research Institute in Texas, explained that the spacecraft is steadily closing in on its planned rendezvous point at about 4 miles per second.
However, they expect Juno to pick up speed significantly by the time it gets closer to Jupiter because of the planet's powerful gravitational pull. They estimate that the spacecraft would achieve a speed of more than 40 miles per second right before they would be able to fire up its rocket to get into orbit.
Bolton and his colleagues are using the remaining weeks to reassess all aspects of the Jupiter orbit insertion (JOI) plan. This is when they determine every possible scenario involving Juno's entry into the planet's orbit and find out if they need to address any part of the process.
There are two scenarios that the researchers have identified so far. The first one involves the ability of the spacecraft to come out of its safe mode, which was created to keep Juno operational in case it encounters anomalies or any unexpected conditions. The second one involves initiating a minor update to the spacecraft's software.
Juno project manager Rick Nybakken said they have now entered the last test and review stages of JOI plan as part of their final preparations for Juno's entry into the Jupiter system's orbit.
"Throughout the project, including operations, our review process has looked for the likely, the unlikely and then the very unlikely," Nybakken said.
"Now we are looking at extremely unlikely events that orbit insertion could throw at us."
One of the main objectives of the Juno mission is to discover clues regarding Jupiter's origins, particularly those that could point to when and how it was formed. Mission scientists will also try to determine how the giant gas planet was able to evolve over time.
To accomplish these goals, Juno will collect data on the water and ammonia levels found in Jupiter's atmosphere. These could help determine which of the existing theories on the planet's origins makes the most sense.
Juno will also examine the gravitational and magnetic fields around the gas giant in order to find out if it has a solid core and, if it does have one, how big its core could be.