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In order to avoid a twelve-hour plunge through Jupiter’s shadow that would have likely sucked all power from Juno’s solar powered systems and killed the spacecraft, mission engineers have successfully used its attitude thrusters to complete a 10.5 long engine burn.
Juno began the maneuver yesterday, on Sept. 30, at 7:46 p.m. EDT (4:46 p.m. PDT) and completed it early on Oct. 1. Using the spacecraft’s reaction-control thrusters, the propulsive maneuver lasted five times longer than any previous use of that system. It changed Juno’s orbital velocity by 126 mph (203 kph) and consumed about 160 pounds (73 kilograms) of fuel. Without this maneuver, Juno would have spent 12 hours in transit across Jupiter’s shadow – more than enough time to drain the spacecraft’s batteries. Without power, and with spacecraft temperatures plummeting, Juno would likely succumb to the cold and be unable to awaken upon exit.
“With the success of this burn, we are on track to jump the shadow on Nov. 3,” said Scott Bolton, Juno principal investigator at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.
This burn did not use the spacecraft’s main engine, which they fear has a problem that would produce a catastrophic failure if fired. Instead, they used Juno’s small attitude thrusters, which explains the length of the maneuver. In fact, this 10.5 hour burn might actually be the longest chemical engine burn in space ever. While ion engines routinely fire for this long or longer, as far as I can remember no chemical engine in space has ever fired even close to this length of time.