A NASA spacecraft made the closest flyby of Jupiter’s largest moon in 21 years on Monday (June 7).
Juno whizzed by the icy moon of Ganymede safely at an altitude of just 645 miles (1,000 kilometers) at 12:56 p.m. EDT (1656 GMT). But we won’t get any images or other information for a while, as NASA typically tasks downloads to Earth when the spacecraft is less busy gathering data.
“It’s our first close Ganymede flyby in 20 years! Stay tuned for images and science results,” the NASA Solar System Twitter account said at the time of flyby. The last such pass of Ganymede was in 2000 by the spacecraft Galileo, which orbited Jupiter and flew by many of its moons between 1995 and 2003.
Juno’s next trick will be speeding once more over the cloud tops of Jupiter, on its 34th such pass in the intense radiation environment, on Tuesday (June 8), the agency added. Juno is on a long-term mission to learn more about the planet’s interior and weather and was approved for another mission extension, this time to 2025, earlier this year based on its science return since arriving at the Jupiter system in 2016.
The newly accomplished Ganymede flyby could offer crucial information for future exploration of Jupiter’s icy moons, where two missions are set to explore in the 2030s: the JUICE mission by the European Space Agency and the Europa Clipper mission by NASA. Icy moons are considered to be promising environments for habitability due to their watery environments and source of energy from the gravitational tug of nearby planets.
The flyby included probing by several of Juno’s instruments and cameras: three different cameras, radio instruments, the Ultraviolet Spectrograph (UVS), the Jovian Infrared Auroral Mapper (JIRAM) instruments and the Microwave Radiometer (MWR).
The last instrument was attempting to identify the ingredients of the lighter and darker patches of Ganymede’s ice shell, NASA said. Only five images from the spacecraft’s star camera, JunoCam, are expected to flow back to Earth, however, because the moon appeared and disappeared from the spacecraft’s view in just 25 minutes during the flyby.
“Juno carries a suite of sensitive instruments capable of seeing Ganymede in ways never before possible,” principal investigator Scott Bolton, a space scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, said in a NASA statement. “By flying so close, we will bring the exploration of Ganymede into the 21st century.”
Ganymede will be the main target of the JUICE mission, which will also explore Callisto and Europa. Before Juno, only three other spacecraft have seen Ganymede, the solar system’s largest moon up close. NASA’s twin Voyager spacecraft flew by the moon in 1979, and Galileo made the aforementioned close pass of Ganymede in 2000. The moon is larger than the tiny planet Mercury and is the only known moon that has a magnetic field.
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