Image: Juno at Jupiter
Hopd  /  AP
This artist's rendering shows the Juno spacecraft circling Jupiter. On Thursday, the spacecraft executed the first of two engine burns aimed at setting itself up for an Earth gravity assist next year. It's due to arrive at Jupiter in 2016.
updated 8/30/2012 10:48:30 PM ET 2012-08-31T02:48:30

A Jupiter-bound spacecraft successfully fired its engine Thursday in the first of two crucial maneuvers intended to bring it toward Earth for a momentum-gathering fly-by.

NASA officials said the Juno spacecraft, which is about 300 million miles (500 million kilometers) from Earth, fired its main engine for just short of 30 minutes.

Along with another engine firing set for next week, the maneuver is intended to direct Juno toward Earth's orbit for a 2013 fly-by, where it will use the planet's gravity to accelerate toward the outer solar system.

Launched last year , Juno is zooming toward an encounter with the giant gas planet in 2016.

More than half a dozen spacecraft have visited the solar system's largest planet since the 1970s, but Juno promises to venture closer for a deeper study into Jupiter's evolution.

By peering through Jupiter's dense clouds and mapping its magnetic and gravity fields, scientists hope to better understand how the solar system formed.

The $1.1 billion mission is managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Soon after launch, it glanced back and snapped a rare picture of Earth and the moon.

Since the rocket that carried Juno was not powerful enough to boost it directly to its destination, it has to cruise out to space and swing back next year to use Earth as a gravitational slingshot to push it toward Jupiter.

The back-to-back burns were needed to put Juno on course to fly by Earth at an altitude of some 300 miles (500 kilometers).

To prepare for Thursday's engine burn, the spacecraft's fuel tanks were pressurized and its batteries were fully charged.

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Once in orbit around Jupiter, Juno will circle the poles 33 times and use instruments to track the abundance of water and oxygen in the atmosphere, and determine whether the planet's core is solid or gaseous.

Juno is the first solar-powered spacecraft to venture so far from the sun. It is equipped with three solar panels, each the size of a tractor-trailer.

Juno is designed to study Jupiter for a year and then deliberately crash into the planet so that it won't pose any threat of biological contamination to moons such as Europa, which scientists believe may have a liquid ocean beneath its surface.

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Video: NASA launches Juno spacecraft

  1. Transcript of: NASA launches Juno spacecraft

    LESTER HOLT, anchor: The space shuttle program may be over, but NASA is still sending rockets into the final frontier. The unmanned Juno spacecraft blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force station today on its way to Jupiter . It will be a long trip, 400 million miles, and Juno is expected to settle into Jupiter 's orbit in July 2016 on a mission to study the huge planet structure, magnetic field and atmosphere.

Photos: Jewels from Jupiter

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  1. Jupiter loses a stripe

    The weather on Jupiter is changeable, as these before-and-after pictures show. The photograph on the left shows Jupiter as seen in June 2009. The photo on the right, taken on May 9, 2010, reveals that one of the planet's prominent dark cloud belts has faded away. The lightening of the South Equatorial Belt is due to atmospheric changes. Both pictures were taken by Anthony Wesley, an amateur astronomer in Australia. (Anthony Wesley via The Planetary Society) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Family portrait

    Launched in 1989, the Galileo spacecraft has photographed Jupiter as well as several of the giant planet's satellites. Here's a montage that shows Jupiter's Great Red Spot and the four largest moons. From top, they are Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Cratered Callisto

    Callisto is considered the most cratered celestial body in the solar system. The false-color overlay at right exaggerates the moon's surface features, including the Valhalla impact structure near the center of the disk. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Dark face

    Colors are enhanced in this view of Ganymede's trailing hemisphere, highlighting the moon's polar caps. The violet color indicates where small particles of frost may be scattering light on the blue end of the spectrum. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Cloudy weather

    The mosaic at left shows the true colors of the cloud patterns in Jupiter's northern hemisphere. The rendition at right uses false colors to represent the height and thickness of the cloud cover. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. This is the Spot

    A true-color picture captures the subtle shadings of Jupiter's Great Red Spot, a massive, long-lived storm system in the planet's thick atmosphere. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A big splash on Europa

    A computer-generated perspective view shows the Pwyll impact crater on Europa, an ice-covered moon of Jupiter. The heights are exaggerated, but the central peak indicates that the crater may have been modified shortly after its formation by the flow of underlying warm ice. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A blast at Io

    This image of Io, thought to be the solar system's most volcanically active world, shows the plumes of two eruptions. One plume can be seen at the very edge of the disk, the other is puffing up from the dark volcanic ring near the center of the disk. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Lava light

    An active volcanic eruption on Jupiter's moon Io flares in an image taken in February 2000 by the Galileo spacecraft. The dark L-shaped lava flow to the left of center marks the site of energetic eruptions in November 1999 at Tvashtar Catena, which is a chain of giant volcanic calderas. The two small bright spots at left side of image are sites where molten rock is exposed to the surface at the toes of lava flows. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Crazy quilt

    The thin crust of Europa's Conamara region is criss-crossed by craters, cracks and lines - indicating that the surface ice was repeatedly disrupted. The colors, which are enhanced in this view, show where light ice crystals and dark contaminants have settled onto the surface. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A moving moon

    In a picture taken in April 2001 by NASA's Cassini spacecraft, the moon Io looks like a marble set against the background of Jupiter. Io is the giant planet's third-largest satellite. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Anthony Wesley via The Planetary Society
    Above: Slideshow (11) Jewels of Jupiter
  2. Image:
    Y. Beletsky / ESO
    Slideshow (12) Month in Space: January 2014

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