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NASA Geotail spacecraft's 30-year mission ends after last data recorder fails

Also, JunoCam malfunctioned again, time to get new kit up there

NASA has formally ended the Geotail spacecraft's 30-year mission studying the Earth's magnetosphere after months of repeated attempts to repair its last data recorder failed. 

Launched on July 24, 1992, Geotail was put to work probing the protective bubble that prevents harmful solar rays and cosmic radiation from hitting our planet.Geotail flew through the magnetosphere on a journey that took it as far out as 193,000km (120,000 miles) into the planet's magnetotail.

The mission was initially planned to last four years, but NASA extended it multiple times since the spacecraft had gathered such valuable data.

Over time, the old satellite started deteriorating. In 2012, one of its data recorders gave out, but Geotail kept going for another decade with a backup until the remaining system failed. Mission control repeatedly tried to fix the issue but failed to get the hardware up and running again. NASA officially retired the mission on 28 November.

In a statement released earlier this month, Don Fairfield – an emeritus space scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, who was the first project scientist and worked on the mission until he retired in 2008 – said: "Geotail has been a very productive satellite, and it was the first joint NASA-JAXA mission."

He added that Geotail "made important contributions to our understanding of how the solar wind interacts with Earth's magnetic field to produce magnetic storms and auroras."

The spacecraft carried multiple instruments analyzing the electric field, incoming streams of charged particles, and plasma readings. Its measurements have helped scientists better understand how the Sun's energy impacts Earth, and led them to discover magnetic reconnection – a physical process that drives solar flares. Geotail even managed to detect oxygen, silicon, sodium, and aluminum in the Moon's atmosphere.

"Other spacecraft had traveled through the distant tail," Guan Le, who took over as Geotail's project scientist when Fairfield retired in 2008, said. "But Geotail was the first with a comprehensive suite of instruments that could provide unprecedented measurements of electric fields, magnetic fields, the kinds of particles, and the waves traveling through the region."

The spacecraft spurred NASA to launch its Magnetospheric Multiscale mission to study magnetic reconnection in closer detail in 2015. Although Geotail's job has ended, astronomers will continue to study the trove of data it has collected over its lifetime.

JunoCam glitch strikes again

Juno, another longtime NASA spacecraft, is showing signs of wear and tear. Its visible-light camera, JunoCam, suffered a glitch on the spacecraft's 48th and most recent flyby of Jupiter on January 22. NASA believes a rise in the temperature of the instrument degraded its images. 

The first 214 JunoCam images taken during its last flyby contain too much noise to be usable. However the remaining 44 images – snapped after its hardware cooled down – look fine. The probe images the cloud tops of Jupiter to better understand the planet's internal workings.

It's not the first time the JunoCam has malfunctioned – similar issues occurred during its previous Jupiter flyby. This time, however, the glitch lasted 23 hours compared to 36 minutes on its 47th flyby, which isn't a good sign.

"The mission team is evaluating JunoCam engineering data acquired during the two recent flybys – the 47th and 48th of the mission – and is investigating the root cause of the anomaly and mitigation strategies," NASA confirmed. "JunoCam will remain powered on for the time being and the camera continues to operate in its nominal state."

Juno is scheduled to make its 49th flyby of Jupiter on March 1 and all NASA eyes will be glued on how it performs. ®

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