NASA's solar-powered Juno spacecraft blasted off on its five-year mission to Jupiter on Friday, the first mission launched after the end of the space shuttle program last month and the first representing NASA's new emphasis on unmanned space missions.
Juno will explore the largest planet in the solar system and some of its more than 50 moons. The aim is to learn more about how Jupiter formed and developed, shedding light on how solar systems and planets evolve in general.
NASA argues that these robotic missions are a better use of its resources for the time being, with the work of getting people in and out of space contracted to the private sector.
"The future of exploration includes cutting-edge science like this to help us better understand our solar system and an ever-increasing array of challenging destinations," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement.
It will take just a day for Juno to travel 250,000 miles--the distance from Earth to the moon. But it's five more years--1.7 billion miles--to Jupiter. The spacecraft will orbit Jupiter's poles 33 times and use its collection of eight scientific instruments to try to see through Jupiter's thick, swirling cloud cover to see what's underneath.
"Jupiter is the Rosetta Stone of our solar system," said Scott Bolton, Juno's principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. "It is by far the oldest planet, contains more material than all the other planets, asteroids, and comets combined, and carries deep inside it the story of not only the solar system but of us. Juno is going there as our emissary--to interpret what Jupiter has to say."