On the 4th of July, while you’re outside enjoying a barbecue and not thinking about anything more distant than the fireworks overhead, a small group of scientists will be tying themselves in knots over the fate of a 66-foot long unmanned spacecraft almost 484 million miles from Earth. This Monday, NASA’s mission to Jupiter, Juno, will reach the most critical point in its journey since its launch on August 5th, 2011–successfully getting into orbit around the solar system’s largest planet.
The maneuver depends on a 35-minute engine burn that will slow Juno down enough to get caught up in the gas giant’s gravity. And because there’s a 49-minute communication lag time between Juno and NASA’s Earthbound team, it’s a course correction that Juno’s onboard computers will have to make all by themselves. If it doesn’t all go just right, Juno’s scientific objectives–which run from examining Jupiter’s auroras to gaining new insight into the birth of the solar system–are pretty much toast. We’ll be updating you as things move forward. If all goes according to plan, be prepared: Juno scientists have told us to get ready for a tidal wave of new science.