A Nasa spacecraft on a mission to Jupiter has made a record-breaking approach to the giant planet, orbiting closer than any man-made object before it.
Juno – which was launched five years ago and has travelled 1.8 billion miles from Earth – soared 2,500 miles above the planet’s swirling cloud tops at 130,000 mph.
Unique images, including the highest resolution picture ever obtained from Jupiter’s clouds, and a wealth of scientific data will be collected from the approach, mission controllers at the American space agency said.
The spacecraft is believed to have reached its closest point at 1.51pm GMT having entered the planet’s orbit on July 4.
Executing an engine burn manoeuvre, Juno placed itself in a ellipse around Jupiter which takes around 53 days to traverse.
Principal investigator Dr Scott Bolton, of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, said:
“This is our first opportunity to really take a close-up look at the king of our solar system and begin to figure out how he works.”
It will take some days for the images and information gathered by Juno to be downloaded on Earth. They should include the first detailed pictures of Jupiter’s north and south poles.
In total, 35 more approaches are planned during Juno’s primary mission, scheduled to end in February 2018.
A British team from the University of Leicester is playing a key role in the mission, focusing on Jupiter’s powerful magnetic field, its auroras and atmosphere.
The previous record for a close approach to the planet was set by Nasa’s Pioneer 11 spacecraft, which passed at a distance of 27,000 miles in 1974.
Only one other spacecraft, Galileo, which visited Jupiter and its moons from 1995 to 2003, has orbited the planet. Although it was deliberately crashed onto Jupiter at the end of its mission, it circled from a much further distance than Juno.
At the end of its 20-month mission, Juno will follow suit, making a one-way plunge into the planet’s thick atmosphere.
Powered by three huge solar panels, the craft was launched into space by an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on August 5 2011.
Unusually for a robotic space mission, the probe is carrying three passengers: Lego figures depicting the 17th century Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei, the Roman god Jupiter, and the deity’s wife, Juno.
Lego made the figures out of aluminium so they could withstand the extreme conditions of space flight.
A plaque dedicated to Galileo from the Italian Space Agency is also on board.
News Source TelegraphNews