On its way to explore Jupiter, a NASA probe has set a new record to become the furthest traveling solar-powered spacecraft.
NASA announced that Jupiter’s probe Juno broke the distance record on Wednesday, Jan. 13, when the spacecraft was about 493 million miles from the sun at 2 p.m.
The solar-powered spacecraft record was previously credited to the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission when it reached 492 million miles from the sun in October 2012 as it made its way to the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.
Juno first launched in 2011, and is expected to reach Jupiter on July 4 of this year where it will then orbit the planet 33 times. The solar-powered spacecraft will study Jupiter’s aurorae with the goal to find out more about the planet’s origin, composition, atmosphere, magnetic and gravitational fields.
The spacecraft weighs in at 4 tons and carries 30-foot-long solar arrays that have 18,698 individual solar cells, which would be able to generate about 14 kilowatts of electricity at Earth’s distance from the sun. This probe is going five times that distance.
“Jupiter is five times farther from the sun than Earth, and the sunlight that reaches that far out packs 25 times less punch,” Rick Nybakken, Juno’s project manager from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said. “While our massive solar arrays will be generating only 500 watts when we are at Jupiter, Juno is very efficiently designed, and it will be more than enough to get the job done.”
The previous eight spacecrafts that have traveled out as far as Jupiter used nuclear power to do so. Because of solar-cell performance advancements and energy-efficient instrument improvements, Juno is able to use solar power to travel about 517 million miles from the sun.
“Juno is all about pushing the edge of technology to help us learn about our origins,” Scott Bolton, Juno principal investigator at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, said in a press release. “We use every known technique to see through Jupiter’s clouds and reveal the secrets Jupiter holds of our solar system’s early history. It just seems right that the sun is helping us learn about the origin of Jupiter and the other planets that orbit it.”
Breaking the distance record using solar-powered spacecraft proves that probes will be able to venture out further into our solar system as technology continues to advance.
“It is cool we got the record and that our dedicated team of engineers and scientists can chalk up another first in space exploration,” said Bolton. “But the best is yet to come. We are achieving these records and venturing so far out for a reason — to better understand the biggest world in our solar system and thereby better understand where we came from.”