A NASA spacecraft launched back in 2011 is one step closer to its final destination after picking up a gravitational speed boost from flying around the Earth, the Science Recorder reported on Thursday.
The spacecraft, known as Juno, was launched back in 2011 and has flown nearly 50 million miles already, but has been slowed down by the gravity of the sun. NASA arranged to have the spacecraft fly around Earth on Wednesday in order to gain a slingshot-style speed boost which will help propel Juno back on its way to Jupiter. NASA estimated that by orbiting Earth, the planet's gravity will boost the spacecraft's speed 11.5%, from its current 78,000 miles per hour to 87,000 miles per hour.
Juno will certainly benefit from the speed boost as the spacecraft is bulky and heavy, weighing in at 8,000 pounds. Most of the weight comes from three solar rays, each the size of a tractor trailer, in addition to a titanium vault that is meant to protect Juno's electronic equipment from the intense radiation and heat that it will likely encounter when it enters Jupiter's atmosphere.
While Juno's trip around the Earth was successful, the spacecraft showed a few signs of trouble that NASA engineers are currently investigating. The spacecraft was supposed to relay data back to NASA, but returned hardly any information at all. NASA later discovered that Juno had entered safe mode, a state that spacecraft are programed to go into if they sense there is a problem, but which also prevents information from being shared between the spacecraft and NASA. Despite the safe mode issue, Juno is still scheduled to arrive at Jupiter some time in 2016.