Aug 30, 2012 5:13 PM by Lauren Molenburg
PASADENA, Calif. (AP) -- A Jupiter-bound spacecraft prepared to fire its engine Thursday for an important maneuver intended to bring it back toward Earth.
The engine burn was the first of two planned to set up NASA's Juno spacecraft to use Earth's gravity to accelerate it toward the outer solar system. The second engine firing will occur next week.
Launched last year, Juno is zooming toward an encounter with the giant gas planet in 2016.
By peering through Jupiter's dense clouds and mapping its magnetic and gravity fields, scientists hope to better understand how the solar system formed.
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 the Earth as a slingshot to push it toward Jupiter.
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.
(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)