NASA's Juno snaps its 1st picture of Jupiter and its moons
Image shows four largest moons, alternating light and dark bands of planet's clouds
NASA's Juno spacecraft has sent its first photograph of Jupiter back to Earth.
The high-resolution image, taken by the craft's JunoCam, shows Jupiter and its four largest moons – Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. It was taken at a distance of 10.9 million kilometres from the planet. The photo also captures the alternating light and dark bands of Jupiter's clouds.
Unlike previous spacecraft, which approached Jupiter close to the planet's equator, Juno is coming toward the planet from a higher altitude, over the planet's north pole. This provides images from a unique perspective.
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Juno, which left Earth in August 2011, will arrive at and begin orbiting Jupiter on July 4. Once in orbit, the JunoCam will take close-up images of the gas giant.
Mission will answer lingering questions
The spacecraft is equipped with measuring tools, which will provide data about the planet's interior structure, composition, magnetic field and atmosphere. This information will answer lingering questions about Jupiter's origins and evolution, which could ultimately provide clues about how our solar system came to be.
Juno is the first solar-powered spacecraft capable of functioning so far away from the sun. It's decked out with three massive solar panels, and its orientation and orbit were specially designed to allow the panels to face the sun most of the time.
The spacecraft will orbit Jupiter 33 times, covering the entire planet, before ending the mission in February 2018.
Upon the mission's completion, Juno will plunge into Jupiter's atmosphere, where NASA says "it will burn up like a meteor." Destroying Juno protects Jupiter's possibly habitable moons from potential contamination by microbes from Earth that could have hitched a ride aboard the craft.
Spacecraft have been studying and snapping photos of Jupiter for decades, with the most extensive research up to this point coming from Galileo, which explored Jupiter for 14 years, until 2003.