At 11:54 pm Eastern tonight, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California erupted into cheers. No ooohs and aaaahs at fireworks displays here: The team of engineers had just received confirmation that their intrepid space probe, Juno, has successfully made its way into Jupiter’s orbit.
That maneuver, a 35-minute burn that began at 11:18 pm Eastern tonight, was the culmination of a five-year journey through space and many more years of work from the JPL team.
Juno has been whizzing toward Jupiter since it left Earth on August 5, 2011. And these 35 minutes have always been the 35 most perilous since launch. Juno had to turn on its engines precisely 2,609 miles away from Jupiter to get into position. If it didn’t slow down enough, the probe would go right past Jupiter, missing its target. At just the right speed, it would sync up with the gas giant’s gravity.
Heading into Jupiter’s orbit also means plunging into the intense radiation that surrounds the planet, which is why the probe has its most sensitive bits stored in a titanium vault.
To make this even more of a nail-biter, signals from Jupiter take almost 49 minutes to reach Earth. That means by the time NASA got the signal that Juno had started slowing down, the probe had already slowed down enough to enter Jupiter’s orbit. If something went wrong, there’s no remote fix–and no way to know until after it’s all over.
Juno’s nine instruments are currently off to keep them safe for the orbital insertion. But now that the probe is safely in position, they’ll start collecting data on the next go around the gas giant. Don’t expect new Jupiter images for your computer background just yet, but rest assured they–and a lot more–are on their way.