Juno gets a new lease of life, and New Horizons wakes up

Two NASA space missions are gearing up for the next phases of their exploration of the outer solar system.

One, the Juno mission, which has been orbiting Jupiter since July 4, 2016, has been extended until July 2021, NASA announced this week.

The mission was designed to terminate this July, with a final plunge into Jupiter’s atmosphere. But a rocket malfunction trapped the spacecraft in a 53-day orbit around Jupiter rather than its planned 14-day one. That means that when it next nears the planet, on 16 July, it will only have made 13 of a planned 37 close flybys of its mysterious cloud-tops.{%recommended 6835%}

Since all instruments are healthy and operating nominally, NASA therefore decided to extend the project, buying enough time for another 20 or so flybys. 

“This is great news for planetary exploration as well as for the Juno team,” says Scott Bolton, the mission’s principal investigator, from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, US. 

Not only will the extension allow the spacecraft to complete its primary goals, he says, but the unplanned 53-day orbit actually allows it to explore more of the outer reaches of Jupiter’s magnetosphere — the zone dominated by its magnetic field – than originally planned.

Meanwhile, NASA’s New Horizons mission, which flew by Pluto in July 2015, has awakened from a long “sleep” and is preparing for the final step of its mission, a New Years Day flyby of Kuiper Belt Object 2014 MU69, nicknamed Ultima Thule (“beyond the known world”). 

The spacecraft will begin making observations in August. Mostly this will to help the mission control team refine its course as it flies by the mysterious 30-kilometre wide object, which lies about 6.5 billion kilometres out from the sun, making it the most distant thing in the solar system ever to be visited by a spacecraft. 

But Ultima Thule is so far away that very little about it is currently known, so it is possible that New Horizons will begin making discoveries long before it arrives.

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