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NASA's Juno Spacecraft Prepares for Cosmic Date With Jupiter

Along the way, Juno became the first spacecraft to cruise this far out powered by the sun

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    A 1/4 scale model size of NASA's solar-powered Juno spacecraft is displayed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. on Friday, July 1, 2016. The spacecraft is on the final leg of a five-year, 1.8 billion-mile voyage to the biggest planet in the solar system. It's expected to reach Jupiter and go into orbit around the planet on July 4.

    A solar-powered spacecraft is spinning toward Jupiter for the closest encounter with the biggest planet in our solar system.

    NASA's Juno spacecraft fires its main rocket engine late Monday to slow itself down from a speed of 150,000 mph (250,000 kph) and slip into orbit around Jupiter.

    With Juno on autopilot, the delicately choreographed move comes without any help from ground controllers.

    Juno is traveling through a hostile radiation environment, "but it should be able to withstand it," said Kenny Starnes, program manager for Lockheed Martin, which built the spacecraft.

    Juno's camera and other instruments were switched off for the arrival so there won't be any pictures at the moment the spacecraft reaches its destination. Scientists have promised close-up views of Jupiter when Juno skims the cloud tops during the 20-month, $1.1 billion mission.

    The fifth rock from the sun and the heftiest planet in the solar system, Jupiter is what's known as a gas giant — a ball of hydrogen and helium — unlike rocky Earth and Mars. With its billowy clouds and colorful stripes, Jupiter is an extreme world that likely formed first, shortly after the sun. Unlocking its history may hold clues to understanding how Earth and the rest of the solar system developed.

    Named after Jupiter's cloud-piercing wife, Juno is only the second mission designed to spend time at Jupiter. Galileo, launched in 1989, circled Jupiter for 14 years, beaming back splendid views of the planet and its numerous moons. It uncovered signs of an ocean beneath the icy surface of Europa, considered a top target in the search for life outside Earth.

    Juno's mission: To peer through Jupiter's cloud-socked atmosphere and map the interior from a unique vantage point above the poles. Among the lingering questions: How much water exists? Is there a solid core? Why are Jupiter's southern and northern lights the brightest in the solar system?

    There's also the mystery of its Great Red Spot. Recent observations by the Hubble Space Telescope revealed the centuries-old monster storm in Jupiter's atmosphere is shrinking.

    The trek to Jupiter, spanning nearly five years and 1.8 billion miles (2.8 billion kilometers), took Juno on a tour of the inner solar system followed by a swing past Earth that catapulted it beyond the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

    Along the way, Juno became the first spacecraft to cruise this far out powered by the sun, beating Europe's comet-chasing Rosetta spacecraft. A trio of massive solar wings sticks out from Juno like blades from a windmill, generating 500 watts of power to run its nine instruments.

    Plans called for Juno to swoop within 3,000 miles (5,000 kilometers) of Jupiter's clouds — closer than previous missions — to map the planet's gravity and magnetic fields.

    Juno is an armored spacecraft — its computer and electronics are locked in a titanium vault to shield them from harmful radiation. Even so, Juno is expected to get blasted with radiation equal to more than 100 million dental X-rays during the mission.

    Like Galileo before it, Juno meets its demise in 2018 when it deliberately dives into Jupiter's atmosphere and disintegrates — a necessary sacrifice to prevent any chance of accidentally crashing into the planet's potentially habitable moons.