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article image'All-or-nothing job' of slowing Juno depends on UK rocket engine

By Karen Graham     Jul 2, 2016 in Science
Juno's long-awaited arrival at Jupiter on Monday will be the culmination of a five-year long voyage with some amazing technology and science behind the mission. Whether Juno goes into orbit will hinge on a very special rocket engine.
We are only two days away from an historic moment in mankind's long history, and it really is an exciting event to look forward to. Just a few days ago, Digital Journal reported on what we know about our solar system's largest gas planet and gave an overview of the primary objectives of the Juno mission.
But with all that information, some of it technical, to be sure, this writer finds the whole Juno mission an amazing accomplishment, both technically and scientifically. So let's talk about the most critical and "do-or-die" part of the mission coming up on Monday.
Using Westcock technology's Leros-1B engine
The whole mission, going forward, will depend on a rocket engine built by Moog-ISP in Westcott, Buckinghamshire, United Kingdom. The 60-year-old company is a leading designer and manufacturer of spaceflight electronics and software for aerospace, scientific, commercial and military missions.
For several weeks now, the strong gravitational pull of Jupiter has been reeling the Juno spacecraft in at unbelievable speeds. By the time Juno reaches the gas giant, it will be one of the fastest man-made objects in human history, says Gizmodo, moving approximately 260,000 kilometers per hour (165,000 mph) relative to the Earth. Let's put it this way - That's about 10 times the top speed of the space shuttle.
Once Juno enters into Jupiter's orbit on the evening of July 4, the spacecraft will have to slow its velocity in a 35-minute burn. That job will be performed by its Leros-1b engine. "It's a tremendous thing for us," said Moog's chief engineer, Dr. Ian Coxhill, reports the BBC.
Artist’s concept of Juno’s Leros 1b main engine during the orbit insertion burn.
Artist’s concept of Juno’s Leros 1b main engine during the orbit insertion burn.
Dr. Coxhill explained, "The engine has to work for Juno to get into orbit; it has to burn at a precise time and burn for a continuous duration of at least 20 mins. There'll be some frayed nerves, for sure." For those 20 to 35 minutes, the whole world will be holding its collective breath.
NASA has used Westcott technology in previous missions because of their reliability. They have high confidence the Leros -1B will work flawlessly. In fact, it has already been tested in flight twice, both times working perfectly.
"In fact, things went so well that Lockheed Martin said initially they thought they had confused the real flight data on the engine burn with the simulation data. It was that accurate. So that's obviously really encouraging," Dr. Coxhill told BBC News.
A 'baptism by fire" awaits the Juno spacecraft
It is difficult to describe the extraordinarily intense radiation environment surrounding Jupiter. Jupiter's magnetic field is 20,000 times more powerful than the Earth's, and it is full of huge swarms of electrons that are moving at close to the speed of light.
This video below presents data that the Waves investigation on NASA's Juno spacecraft recorded as the spacecraft crossed the bow shock just outside of Jupiter's magnetosphere on June 24, 2016, while approaching Jupiter. Give it a listen - Imagine being there for just a few seconds.
The gas giant is constantly sucking up charged particles from the solar winds that surround the planet in what is called "radiation belts," and they are millions of times more intense than anything on Earth. "Once these electrons hit a spacecraft, they immediately begin to ricochet and release energy, creating secondary photons and particles, which then ricochet," Heidi Becker, leader of Juno’s radiation-monitoring team says.
The radiation belt, along with the magnetic field of Jupiter is the reason for the 180 kilogram (400 lb) titanium vault that protects the main computer and delicate instruments inside Juno. NASA says radiation doses inside the vault should be about 800 times lower than those experienced outside.
Instruments outside the vault are wearing "bullet-proof" vests, including Juno's star-tracking camera that it uses to navigate. "Without that protection, the noise from the penetrating radiation would be too high to see stars, and Juno would never know where it was pointing," Becker said.
"Jupiter has the scariest radiation environment of any planet in the solar system," Becker said. "It's the harshest, it's the most intense and it hasn't been fully explored yet — and it hasn't been fully explored where we're going."
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