We’ve always known the Juno Mission to Jupiter would be a short one. Often times planetary science missions like Juno will get extra funding for extended missions, because it costs less to keep using a spacecraft you already have than it does to design, build, and launch a new one. But as I wrote two years ago, this really wouldn’t be an option for Juno.
The reason is that Jupiter has at least one moon (Europa) and perhaps two others (Ganymede and Callisto) which may be home to alien life. Based on everything I’ve read about Europa in particular, I think it would be a bigger surprise if we didn’t find life there; that’s how promising the place looks.
NASA absolutely cannot risk letting Juno crash into and contaminate any of those moons (especially Europa). So after completing its scheduled mission, which was meant to take about two years, Juno would do a suicide run into Jupiter’s atmosphere, destroying itself to ensure there are no future accidents, and also collecting a little extra atmospheric data in the process.
Except shortly after Juno arrived in Jupiter orbit, it ran into some engine trouble, something to do with a pressure valve opening too slowly. As a result, Juno wound up stuck in a much wider and much longer orbit than originally planned. Rather than getting a science pass every 14 days, we’re getting them every 53 days, which has dramatically slowed down Juno’s progress.
Juno’s two years are almost up, but because of that pressure valve malfunction its mission is only half complete. So now Juno needs that mission extension that it was never supposed to get. A planetary scientist working on the Juno Mission was recently quoted as saying: “I think for sure the continuation mission will go on.” He then added: “I’m hopeful but nervous.”
Funding for the Juno mission (for ground operations, mission control stuff, etc) will run out in July of this year. Given the circumstances, I have to assume NASA will grant Juno an extension, but as of this writing they have not done so. Navigating the bureaucracy here on Earth can be just as nerve-wracking as all the hazards of space.
I’m not sure how much Congress is involved in the decision making process here, so maybe that’s what’s holding things up. Or maybe Juno has run into other technical issues which NASA hasn’t made public yet. I don’t know, but if anything else went wrong with the spacecraft during its extended mission, we might lose control of it, and we really, really do not want it crashing into those icy-on-the-outside, watery-on-the-inside moons.
So fingers crossed. Hopefully everything works out okay and Juno can get its extended mission.