While being monitored by NASA's shutdown-inhibited skeleton crew, the Jupiter-bound spacecraft Juno emerged from Earth's shadow in safe mode on Wednesday, which indicates that there's a problem. The issue presented itself as the craft used Earth as a gravity slingshot, in its trek to the outer solar system. Still, NASA mission control says that the probe is still on track to make it to Jupiter in 2016.
Juno project manager Rick Nybakken, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said, "we believe we are on track as planned to Jupiter," while discussing the $1.1 billion mission. Engineers are continuing to diagnose why Juno went into safe mode. The craft can still communicate with ground control, but some if its functionality is offline. Avid Windows users are likely aware of the limitations of a different type of safe mode. It sucks. But there is a way to get sound.
There isn't yet a rocket powerful enough to propel an object to make a direct flight to the outer solar system, so Earth has long been used as a sort of a gravitational springboard - the Galileo spacecraft circled Earth twice in the 1990's, before launching itself out to Jupiter, which lies 484 million miles from the sun.
Juno was launched in 2011, and traveled around Mars at 78,000 mph, before looping back around Earth, getting as near as 350 miles above the coast of South Africa, which boosted its speed to 87,000 mph. The added momentum is enough to make it beyond the asteroid belt to Jupiter.
Juno will become one of a long line of spacecraft that have entered the outer solar system since the 1970's, including the Voyagers, Pioneers, Galileo, Ulysses, Cassini and the New Horizons, which are moving toward Pluto.
The unexpected safe mode issue has caused a "moderate level of concern," according to Nybakken. Though NASA hasn't been updating its website or tweeting, essential crew haven't been furloughed, and all missions continue to operate.
Due to the gov't shutdown, all public NASA activities/events are cancelled or postponed until further notice. Sorry for the inconvenience.
— NASA (@NASA) October 1, 2013
Earlier this week, NASA's latest spacecraft, LADEE, was sent into into orbit around the moon.
Juno intends to move closer to Jupiter than previous spacecraft, orbiting the planet for at least a year, while studying its cloud-covered atmosphere and interior, to get a better idea how the giant planet formed.
Image via Wikimedia Commons.