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The Juno probe close to Jupiter

Press AssociationPress Association 26/06/2016

Scientists are preparing for a bumpy ride as they send a spacecraft perilously close to Jupiter, the solar system's largest planet.

The Juno probe is due to reach the gas giant on July 4 after a five-year, 2.25 billion kilometre journey from Earth.

It will enter a long polar orbit flying to within 4667km of the planet's swirling cloud tops.

To complete its risky mission Juno will have to survive a circuit-frying radiation storm generated by Jupiter's powerful magnetic field.

The maelstrom of high-energy particles travelling at nearly the speed of light is the harshest radiation environment in the solar system.

To cope with the conditions, Juno is protected with special radiation-hardened wiring and sensor shielding.

Its all-important "brain" - the spacecraft's flight computer - is housed in an armoured vault made of titanium and weighing almost 172kg.

Dr Scott Bolton, Juno's principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, US, said: "We are not looking for trouble, we are looking for data.

"Problem is, at Jupiter, looking for the kind of data Juno is looking for, you have to go in the kind of neighbourhoods where you could find trouble pretty quick."

Juno will study Jupiter's composition, gravitational and magnetic field, and search for clues about the planet's formation and the source of its raging winds, which can reach speeds of 618km/h.

It will also deliver stunning colour photos via its JunoCam camera, which has a wide field of view geared for panoramic images.

As a further safeguard, Juno is programmed to follow a long orbital path that avoids Jupiter's radiation belts as much as possible.

Despite these measures, the probe is not expected to last much longer than 20 months.

Chief radiation monitoring investigator Heidi Becker, from Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said: "Over the course of the mission, the highest energy electrons will penetrate the vault, creating a spray of secondary photons and particles.

"The constant bombardment will break the atomic bonds in Juno's electronics."

Unusually for a robotic space mission, Juno is carrying passengers - three Lego figures depicting the 17th century Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei, the Roman god Jupiter, and the deity's wife Juno.

Lego made the figures out of aluminium rather than the usual plastic so they could withstand the extreme conditions of space flight.

Juno was launched into space by an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on August 5, 2011.

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