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NASA's Jupiter Probe Sends First Pics Of Planet From Orbit

NASA has released the first picture of Jupiter taken since the Juno spacecraft went into orbit around the planet on July 4.

The picture was taken on July 10. Juno was 2.7 million miles from Jupiter at the time. The color image shows some of the atmospheric features of the planet, including the giant red spot. You can also see three of Jupiter's moons in the picture: Io, Europa and Ganymede.

JunoCam is the only color camera on the mission. Strictly speaking, it's not part of the spacecraft's scientific instrument payload. Juno's mission is to make measurements of Jupiter's magnetic and gravitational fields, as well as its internal composition, radiation belts and auroras. None of these measurements require a color camera. But NASA knows that it would have been hard to explain to the public why a spacecraft that will fly closer to Jupiter than any other in history didn't take any close-up pictures, so JunoCam was added to Juno's payload.

Right now Juno is in an elongated orbit around Jupiter that takes 53.5 days to make a single revolution. "JunoCam will continue to take images as we go around in this first orbit," said Candy Hansen, Juno co-investigator from the Planetary Science Institute, in a NASA news release. "The first high-resolution images of the planet will be taken on August 27 when Juno makes its next close pass to Jupiter."

Like all the other instruments aboard Juno, JunoCam was switched off in the days immediately preceding a critical engine burn required to place Juno into orbit. Engineers wanted to minimize the risk that one of the instruments could cause a computer reset and shut off the engine prematurely.

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Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.