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NASA's Juno Spacecraft Launches to Jupiter

NASA/KSG(CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.) -- NASA's Juno spacecraft launched Friday on a five-year trip to Jupiter.

"Three, two one, zero, and liftoff with Juno on a trip to Jupiter," called launch commentator George Diller.

The spacecraft, carried on an Atlas 5 rocket, left from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, rising quickly into muggy skies. It was delayed nearly an hour by a suspected helium leak, and by a small boat in the nearby Atlantic that wandered too close to the launchpad before the Coast Guard could chase it away. It was NASA's first launch since the final space shuttle mission last month.

The $1.1 billion Juno project is meant to survey giant Jupiter -- it is 318 times as massive as Earth, with a diameter of some 485,000 miles -- to determine how it formed, how it became so large, and see whether there is oxygen in its thick, cold atmosphere.

The ship is expected to reach Jupiter in July 2016 and orbit the planet, passing over its poles, for at least a year. When its mission is over, the plan is to send the ship plunging into the planet's clouds. NASA doesn't want it wandering around among Jupiter's 50-some moons and possibly crashing into one of them.

Landing on Jupiter is out of the question. Scientists say there's probably no actual surface there to land on. While smaller worlds can't prevent their atmospheres from escaping into space, Jupiter appears to be all atmosphere -- with swirling clouds of ammonia and methane, which form distinctive bands visible in pictures and become thicker and thicker the deeper one goes.

If one could dive into the Jovian atmosphere without being crushed, one would find pressure and temperature increasing to such levels that the atmosphere becomes liquid and eventually metallic, creating powerful magnetism. Deep down in the center, some scientists think there may be a rocky core no larger than Earth.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

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