NASA’s Juno spacecraft set for historic encounter with Jupiter’s volcanic moon Io; check date


Prepare for a celestial spectacle as NASA’s Juno spacecraft gears up for an unprecedented rendezvous with Jupiter’s fiery moon, Io, on Saturday, December 30. This close encounter, at a mere 930 miles (1,500 kilometers) from Io’s tumultuous surface, marks the closest any spacecraft has ventured to the moon in over two decades, promising a deluge of groundbreaking data.

Leading the scientific charge is Juno’s principal investigator, Scott Bolton of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, who anticipates a wealth of insights into Io’s volcanic dynamics. “By combining data from this flyby with our previous observations, the Juno science team is studying how Io’s volcanoes vary,” Bolton explains. The team aims to unravel the mysteries of Io’s eruptions- how often they occur, their intensity, the fluidity of lava flows, and their connection to Jupiter’s magnetosphere’s charged particles.

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This daring flyby is just the first act, with a second ultra-close encounter scheduled for February 3, 2024, where Juno will once again approach within 930 miles (1,500 kilometers) of Io’s surface. The spacecraft has been diligently monitoring Io’s volcanic activity from varying distances, providing unprecedented views of the moon’s poles and executing close flybys of other Jupiterian moons, Ganymede and Europa.

“With our pair of close flybys in December and February, Juno will investigate the source of Io’s massive volcanic activity, whether a magma ocean exists underneath its crust, and the importance of tidal forces from Jupiter, which are relentlessly squeezing this tortured moon,” Bolton affirms.

Entering its third year of an extended mission, Juno is on a quest to uncover the secrets of Jupiter’s origin. The spacecraft will not only scrutinize Io but also explore the ring system housing some of Jupiter’s inner moons. During the Io flyby, all three of Juno’s cameras will be in action:

1. Jovian Infrared Auroral Mapper (JIRAM): Collecting heat signatures from Io’s volcanoes and calderas.

2. Stellar Reference Unit: Capturing the highest-resolution images of Io’s surface to date.

3. JunoCam Imager: Providing visible-light color images.

This December 30 flyby marks Juno’s 57th orbit around Jupiter, where the spacecraft and its resilient cameras will endure one of the solar system’s harshest radiation environments. Notably, NASA predicts that Io’s gravitational pull will alter Juno’s orbit, shortening it from 38 to 35 days following this flyby. With another close encounter on the horizon in February, Juno’s orbit is set to shrink further to an impressive 33 days. The cosmos is poised to reveal its secrets, one orbit at a time.

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