KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla.--A powerful United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket roared to life today and launched NASA's solar-powered Juno space probe on a five-year voyage to Jupiter, the first step in a $1.1 billion mission to look for clues about the origins of the solar system in the hidden heart of its largest planet.
"What we're really going after are some of the most fundamental questions of our solar system--how Jupiter formed, how it evolved, what really happened early in the solar system that eventually led to all of us and the terrestrial planets," said Scott Bolton, the principal investigator. "These are really basic questions: who are we, where did we come from, how did we get here?
"We're kind of going after this recipe of how planets are made. We're getting the ingredients of Jupiter, we're going to understand what the structure is like inside, how was it built, and that will give us guidance as to what happened in that early time that eventually led to us."
The towering 197-foot-tall Atlas 5, equipped with five solid-fuel strap-on boosters for extra power, ignited with a ground-shaking roar at 12:25 p.m. EDT, generating 2.5 million pounds of thrust and instantly pushing the spacecraft away from launch complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. It was only the second launch of a five strap-on Atlas 5, the most powerful version offered by United Launch Alliance.
Liftoff was delayed 51 minutes to resolve two technical issues and to make sure a boat that strayed into the launch danger zone cleared the area.
Climbing away atop a brilliant plume of fiery exhaust, the rocket accelerated through the sound barrier 34 seconds after liftoff, arcing away to the east and putting on a spectacular lunchtime show for tourists and area residents. The strap-on boosters burned out and peeled off about a minute later and the first stage shut down and fell away as planned four and a half minutes after launch.
The rocket's hydrogen-fueled Centaur upper stage then carried out a six-minute burn to boost the spacecraft into a temporary parking orbit. A second nine-minute Centaur firing 31 minutes later accelerated Juno to 25,000 mph, or 7 miles per second--interplanetary escape velocity--and three minutes later, the 4-ton spacecraft separated from the Centaur to fly on its own.… Read more