The solar-powered Juno spacecraft lifted off aboard an Atlas V rocket this morning and began its five-year journey to the planet Jupiter.
Juno's detailed study of the largest planet in our solar system is expected to help astronomers better understand Jupiter's origin and evolution.
And as the archetype of giant gas planets, analyzing Jupiter will also help scientists study the origin of our solar system and learn more about planetary systems around other stars.
"We are on our way, and early indications show we are on our planned trajectory," said Jan Chodas, Juno project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
Juno remains on track to cover the distance from Earth to the moon (about 250,000 miles or 402,336 kilometers) in less than one day's time. It will take another five years and 1,740 million miles (2,800 million kilometers) to complete the journey to Jupiter.
The spacecraft will then orbit the planet's poles 33 times, while using its collection of 8 scientific instruments to probe beneath the gas giant's obscuring cloud cover to learn more about its origins, structure, atmosphere and magnetosphere and look for a potential solid planetary core.
With four large moons and many smaller moons, Jupiter actually forms its own miniature solar system. Its composition resembles that of a star, and if it had been about 80 times more massive, the planet could have become a star instead.
"Jupiter is the Rosetta Stone of our solar system," explained Scott Bolton, Juno's principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.
"It is by far the oldest planet, contains more material than all the other planets, asteroids and comets combined, and carries deep inside it the story of not only the solar system but of us. Juno is going there as our emissary - to interpret what Jupiter has to say."