Road Trip to Jupiter: Meet Part of the Crew Flying the Juno Spacecraft

Remember those long road trips that stretched over countless miles of barren highways? Now imagine making a 1.76 billion-mile, five-year voyage through space with no pit stops for fuel or supplies.

The Juno spacecraft, managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), has done just that, and on July 4, it reached its destination when it fired its main engine to slow down and ease the spacecraft into orbit around Jupiter.

Launched in August 2011, the Juno spacecraft had been on a road trip of sorts, on its way to Jupiter to study the planet’s origins, structure, atmosphere and magnetosphere. Although Juno is a part of NASA’s New Frontier Program and is currently millions of miles away, the spacecraft is operated by a multi-institution team, one of which is at Lockheed Martin’s Mission Support Area (MSA) near Denver, Colorado.

So what does it take to fly a spacecraft you’re not actually on? The engineers featured below partner with JPL, the various science instrument teams and their Lockheed Martin colleagues to operate Juno – each with their own specialty that kept Juno on track for its destination. Learn more about the Juno mission and meet part of our team that continues to help keep it on track.

Kristen Francis, Guidance, Navigation and Control Engineer

Juno art courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

On Earth, we rely on GPS devices, maps or compasses to navigate, but in space, you rely on reference points around you to determine your location. Juno determines its orientation in space by constantly identifying star patterns to calculate its location and orientation. As a guidance, navigation and control engineer for Juno, Kristen Francis spends a lot of time analyzing the spacecraft-generated flight telemetry and designing upcoming maneuvers for the spacecraft. Despite not communicating with the spacecraft daily, Kristen and the rest of the team never have an uneventful day.

“The analysis and planning we do each day may not be extraordinary on its own, but the many outcomes of all that work certainly are,” Francis said. “That day-to-day work is what makes each mission a success, and it eventually helps solve fundamental questions of the universe. I find it incredibly fulfilling.”

Wil Santiago, Mission Operations Thermal Engineer

Juno art courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

Just like passengers on a road trip may often prefer different temperatures to be comfortable, the many components and science instruments on the Juno spacecraft have specific temperature preferences to function optimally, and that’s Wil Santiago’s focus as a thermal engineer.

Overall, the spacecraft is operating in the extreme cold of deep space. Within very small spaces, there are several components that require different temperatures, and by heating one component using electric heaters, Santiago also has to know how that change will affect other nearby components.

“The spacecraft itself has software control much like your thermostat at home,” Santiago said. “There’s a wide range of required temperatures on the spacecraft – avionics want to be running around room temperature, but there are science instruments that are sensitive to heat and need to remain quite cold.”

Juno is the first solar-powered mission traveling to Jupiter, and it holds the record for the farthest spacecraft from the sun to operate on solar power. At that distance from the sun, the spacecraft will only get about four percent of the sunlight it would get near Earth. The Juno spacecraft’s three 30-foot long solar arrays will face the sun during the duration of the Juno mission except for the Jupiter Orbit Insertion event on July 4, which slowed the spacecraft and captured it in orbit around the planet. To cool the components inside the titanium vault that houses electronics components, the spacecraft opens vents and closes them before the components get too cold.

Kenny Starnes, MSA Manager

Juno art courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

As the manager of Lockheed Martin’s MSA in Denver, Kenny oversees five spacecraft operations missions for NASA, including Juno. He and a large team of mission operations engineers are currently flying three missions orbiting Mars (Mars OdysseyMars Reconnaissance Orbiterand MAVEN) as well as the Spitzer Space Telescope which is orbiting near Earth.

Kenny starts his day by checking with the engineering leads from each spacecraft to ensure there are no issues, and he manages resources and personnel across the MSA during critical events like orbital insertions or key spacecraft commands. When minor issues do arise, the team is prepared for them based on the processes Kenny has learned and adapted from his experience with other NASA science missions like Magellan and Mars Global Surveyor. Since 1989, Lockheed Martin has worked on NASA teams to operate 13 of its planetary spacecraft.

“The science that comes back from these missions is the reason I do this,” Starnes said. “These missions have rewritten so many science books from their discoveries, and it’s so exciting knowing your team played a part in getting those results.” 

Bryce Strauss, Mission Operations Systems Engineer

Juno art courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Juno spacecraft has a multitude of very complex subsystems, and as a systems engineer, Bryce Strauss works to make sure all of those subsystems work together.

His day-to-day role includes planning and building commands to send to the spacecraft, although communicating with a spacecraft more than 540 million miles away takes longer than the average long distance call. Currently it takes about 48 minutes to send a signal to the Juno spacecraft, and it takes another 48 minutes to learn whether that command was a success or not. Because of this delay, Strauss and his systems engineering team strategize to build uplink products, or sequences, that consist of multiple, properly-timed commands.

Despite the length of time needed to communicate with the spacecraft, Strauss says team members communicate with each other quite freely, and that’s his favorite part of the job.

“My role as a systems engineer allows me to sit with my Juno teammates and learn more about their areas of expertise. I really enjoy soaking in their specialties and their passions,” Strauss said. “Our subsystem engineers are the best at what they do, and I love being a catalyst to put together the pieces so our spacecraft can continue to operate successfully.”

Alexandra Hilbert, Systems and Guidance, Navigation and Control Engineer

Juno art courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

Alexandra has a dual role on the Juno mission. As a systems engineer, she coordinates with the JPL mission planning team to plan the commands sent to the spacecraft. As a guidance, navigation and control engineer, she works with JPL’s navigation team to create tools and conducts analysis to trend the stars the spacecraft uses to determine its orientation.

Unlike many other spacecraft, Juno spins as it moves through space to stay dynamically stable – similar to the spiral of a thrown football. The spinning helps control direction, but speed is still controlled by thrusters. As the spacecraft approached Jupiter, managing the spacecraft’s pointing and trajectory was critical to ensure it entered the planet’s orbit and didn’t fly right by it.

“Some days it feels surreal, but when you step back and think about it, our jobs are really exciting,” Hilbert said. “I think there’s a misconception that jobs in space exploration only exist at NASA. While NASA is our customer, it’s important for people to know that exciting jobs like this also exist at Lockheed Martin.”