JunoCam Wows Us Again With Detailed Images of the Great Red Spot

JunoCam captured these images of the Great Red Spot during the July 2017 fly-by of Jupiter. The composite images provide a richly-detailed look at the storm. Image: Sánchez-Lavega et al. 2018; composed by G. Eichstadt and J. Cowart

For almost 200 years humans have been watching the Great Red Spot (GRS) on Jupiter and wondering what’s behind it. Thanks to NASA’s Juno mission, we’ve been getting better and better looks at it. New images from JunoCam reveal some of the deeper detail in our Solar System’s longest-lived storm.

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Another Juno Flyby, Another Amazing Sequence of Images of Jupiter

In July of 2016, the Juno spacecraft established orbit around Jupiter, becoming the first spacecraft since the Galileo probe to study the planet directly. Since that time, the probe has been sending back vital information about Jupiter’s atmosphere, magnetic field and weather patterns. With every passing orbit – known as perijoves, which take place every 53 days – the probe has revealed more exciting things about this gas giant.
Continue reading “Another Juno Flyby, Another Amazing Sequence of Images of Jupiter”

Twelve New Moons Discovered Around Jupiter, and One of Them is Pretty Odd!

The gas giant Jupiter, which was named in honor of the king of the gods in the Roman pantheon, has always lived up to its name. In addition to being the largest planet in the Solar System – with two and a half times the mass of all the other planets combined – it also has an incredibly powerful magnetic field and the most intense storms of any planet in the Solar System.

What’s more, it is home to some of the largest moons in the Solar System (known as the Galilean Moons), and has more known moons than any other planet. And thanks to a recent survey led by Scott S. Sheppard of the Carnegie Institution of Science, twelve more moons have been discovered. This brings the total number of known moons around Jupiter to 79, and could provide new insight into the history of the Solar System.

The team was led by Scott S. Sheppard and included Dave Tholen (University of Hawaii) and Chad Trujillo (Northern Arizona University). It was this same team that first suggested the existence of a massive planet in the outer reaches of the Solar System (Planet 9 or Planet X) in 2014, based on the unusual behavior of certain populations of extreme Trans-Neptunian Objects (eTNOs).

Artist’s impression of Jupiter’s moons, with the newly-discovered moons indicated in blue and red. Credit: Carnegie Institution of Science/Roberto Molar Candanosa

Curiously enough, it was while Sheppard and his colleagues were hunting for this elusive planet that they spotted the first of these new moons in 2017. As Sheppard explained in a recent Carnegie press release:

“Jupiter just happened to be in the sky near the search fields where we were looking for extremely distant Solar System objects, so we were serendipitously able to look for new moons around Jupiter while at the same time looking for planets at the fringes of our Solar System.”

The initial discoveries were made using the Blanco 4-meter telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in Chile. They were then confirmed with the help of the Dark Energy Camera (DECam), which was added to the Blanco telescope as past of the Dark Energy Survey. Additional data was provided by the Carnegie Observatories 6.5-meter Magellan Telescopes.

The orbits of the newly-discovered moons were then calculated by Gareth Williams of the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center (MPC), based on the team’s observations.  “It takes several observations to confirm an object actually orbits around Jupiter,” he said. “So, the whole process took a year.”

As you can see from the image above, two of the newly-discovered moons (indicated in blue) are part of the inner group that have prograde orbits (i.e. they orbit in the same direction as the planet’s rotation). They complete a single orbit in a little less than a year, and have similar orbital distances and angles of inclination. This is a possible indication that these moons are fragments of a larger moon that was broken apart, possibly due to a collision.

Nine of the new moons (indicated in red) are part of the distant outer group that have retrograde orbits, meaning they orbit in the opposite direction of Jupiter’s rotation. These moons take about two years to complete a single orbit of Jupiter and are grouped into three orbital groups that have similar distances and inclination. As such, they are also thought to be remnants of three larger moons that broke apart due to past collisions.

The team observed one other moon that does not fit into either group, and is unlike any known moon orbiting Jupiter. This “oddball moon” is more distant and more inclined than the prograde moons and takes about one and a half years to orbit Jupiter, which means its orbit crosses the outer retrograde moons. Because of this, head-on collisions are much more likely to occur with the retrograde moons, which are orbiting in the opposite direction.

The orbit of this oddball moon was also confirmed by Bob Jacobson and Marina Brozovic at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 2017. This was motivated in part to ensure that the moon would not be lost before it arrived at the predicted location in its orbit during the recovery observations made in 2018. As Sheppard explained,

“Our other discovery is a real oddball and has an orbit like no other known Jovian moon. It’s also likely Jupiter’s smallest known moon, being less than one kilometer in diameter…This is an unstable situation. Head-on collisions would quickly break apart and grind the objects down to dust.”

Caption: Recovery images of Valetudo from the Magellan telescope in May 2018. The moon can be seen moving relative to the steady state background of distant stars. Jupiter is not in the field but off to the upper left.

Here too, the team thinks that this moon could be the remains of a once-larger moon; in this case, one that had a prograde orbit that formed some of the retrograde moons through past collisions. The oddball moon already has a suggested name for it – Valetudo, after the Jupiter’s great-granddaughter, the goddess of health and hygiene in the Roman pantheon.

In addition to adding to Jupiter’s overall moon count, the study of what shaped these moon’s orbital histories could teach scientists a great deal about the earliest period of the Solar System. For instance, the fact that the smallest moons in Jupiter’s various orbital groups (prograde, retrograde) are still abundant suggests that the collisions that created them occurred after the era of planet formation.

According to the Nebular Hypothesis of Solar System formation, the Sun was still surrounded by a rotating protoplanetary disk at this time – i.e. the gas and dust from which the planets formed. Because of their sizes – 1 to 3 km – these moons would have been more influenced by surrounding gas and dust, which would have placed a drag on their orbits and caused them to fall inwards towards Jupiter.

The fact that these moons still exist shows that they likely formed after this gas and dust dissipated. In this respect, these moons are much like time capsules or geological records, preserving pieces of Jupiter’s (and the Solar Systems) history of formation and evolution.

This research was partially funded by a NASA Planetary Astronomy grant, and was made possible thanks to assistance by multiple observatories. These included the 4-meter Discovery Channel Telescope at Lowell Observatory Arizona, the 8-meter Subaru Telescope and the University of Hawaii’s 2.2 meter telescope, and the 8-meter Gemini Telescope in Hawaii.

Further Reading: Carnegie Institute of Science

NASA’s Juno Mission Spots Another Possible Volcano on Jupiter’s Moon Io

When the Juno spacecraft arrived in orbit around Jupiter in 2016, it became the second spacecraft in history to study Jupiter directly – the first being the Galileo probe, which orbited Jupiter between 1995 and 2003. With every passing orbit (known as a perijove, which take place every 53 days), the spacecraft has revealed more about Jupiter’s atmosphere, weather patterns, and magnetic environment.

In addition, Juno recently discovered something interesting about Jupiter’s closest orbiting moon Io. Based on data collected by its Jovian InfraRed Auroral Mapper (JIRAM) instrument, Juno detected a new heat source close to the south pole of Io that could indicate the presence of a previously undiscovered volcano. This is just the latest discovery made by the probe during its mission, which NASA recently extended to 2021.

Annotated image of the new heat source in the southern hemisphere of the Jupiter moon Io. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/ASI/INAF/JIRAM

The infrared data was collected on Dec. 16th, 2017, when the Juno spacecraft was about 470,000 km (290,000 mi) away from Io. As Alessandro Mura, a Juno co-investigator from the National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) in Rome, explained in a recent NASA press release:

“The new Io hotspot JIRAM picked up is about 200 miles (300 kilometers) from the nearest previously mapped hotspot. We are not ruling out movement or modification of a previously discovered hot spot, but it is difficult to imagine one could travel such a distance and still be considered the same feature.”

Aside from Juno and Galileo, many NASA missions have visited or passed through the Jovian System in the past few decades. These have including the Pioneer 10 and 11 missions in 1973/74, the Voyager 1 and 2 missions in 1979, and the Cassini and New Horizons missions in 2000 and 2007, respectively. Each of these missions managed to snap pictures of the Jovians moons on their way to the outer Solar System.

Annotated image of the new heat source close to the south pole of Io, with a scale depicting the range of temperatures displayed in the infrared image. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/ASI/INAF/JIRAM

Combined with ground-based observations, scientists have accounted for over 150 volcanoes on the surface of Io so far, with estimates claiming there could over 400 in total. Since it entered Jupiter’s orbit on July 4th, 2016, the Juno probe has traveled nearly 235 million km (146 million mi) from one pole to other. On July 16th, Juno will conduct its 13th perijove maneuver, once again passing low over Jupiter’s cloud tops at a distance of about 3,400 km (2,100 mi).

During these flybys, Juno probes beneath the upper atmosphere to study the planet’s auroras to learn more about it’s structure, atmosphere and magnetosphere. By shedding light on these characteristics, the Juno probe will also teach us more about the planet’s origins and evolution. This in turn will teach scientists a great deal more about the formation and evolution of our Solar System, and perhaps how life began here.

Further Reading: NASA

Juno Data Shows that Some of Jupiter’s Moons are Leaving “Footprints” in its Aurorae

Since it arrived in orbit around Jupiter in July of 2016, the Juno mission has been sending back vital information about the gas giant’s atmosphere, magnetic field and weather patterns. With every passing orbit – known as perijoves, which take place every 53 days – the probe has revealed things about Jupiter that scientists will rely on to learn more about its formation and evolution.

Interestingly, some of the most recent information to come from the mission involves how two of its moons affect one of Jupiter’s most interesting atmospheric phenomenon. As they revealed in a recent study, an international team of researchers discovered how Io and Ganymede leave “footprints” in the planet’s aurorae. These findings could help astronomers to better understand both the planet and its moons.

The study, titled “Juno observations of spot structures and a split tail in Io-induced aurorae on Jupiter“, recently appeared in the journal Science. The study was led by A. Mura of the International Institute of Astrophysics (INAF) and included members from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Italian Space Agency (ASI), the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL), and multiple universities.

Infrared images obtained by the Cassini probe, showing disturbances in Jupiter’s aurorae caused by Io and Ganymede. Credit: (c) Science (2018).

Much like aurorae here on Earth, Jupiter’s aurorae are produced in its upper atmosphere when high-energy electrons interact with the planet’s powerful magnetic field. However, as the Juno probe recently demonstrated using data gathered by Ultraviolet Spectrograph (UVS) and Jovian Energetic Particle Detector Instrument (JEDI), Jupiter’s magnetic field is significantly more powerful than anything we see on Earth.

In addition to reaching power levels 10 to 30 times greater than anything higher than what is experienced here on Earth (up to 400,000 electron volts), Jupiter’s norther and southern auroral storms also have oval-shaped disturbances that appear whenever Io and Ganymede pass close to the planet. As they explain in their study:

“A northern and a southern main auroral oval are visible, surrounded by small emission features associated with the Galilean moons. We present infrared observations, obtained with the Juno spacecraft, showing that in the case of Io, this emission exhibits a swirling pattern that is similar in appearance to a von Kármán vortex street.”

A Von Kármán vortex street, a concept in fluid dynamics, is basically a repeating pattern of swirling vortices caused by a disturbance. In this case, the team found evidence of a vortex streaming for hundreds of kilometers when Io passed close to the planet, but which then disappeared as the moon moved farther away from the planet.

Reconstructed view of Jupiter’s northern lights through the filters of the Juno Ultraviolet Imaging Spectrograph instrument on Dec. 11, 2016, as the Juno spacecraft approached Jupiter, passed over its poles, and plunged towards the equator. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Bertrand Bonfond

The team also found two spots in the auroral belt created by Ganymede, where the extended tail from the main auroral spots eventually split in two. While the team was not sure what causes this split, they venture that it could be caused by interaction between Ganymede and Jupiter’s magnetic field (since Ganymede is the only Jovian moon to have its own magnetic field).

These features, they claim, suggest that magnetic interactions between Jupiter and Ganymede are more complex than previously thought. They also indicate that neither of the footprints were where they expected to find them, which suggests that models of the planet’s magnetic interactions with its moons may be in need of revision.

Studying Jupiter’s magnetic storms is one of the primary goals of the Juno mission, as is learning more about the planet’s interior structure and how it has evolved over time. In so doing, astronomers hope to learn more about how the Solar System came to be. NASA also recently extended the mission to 2021, giving it three more years to gather data on these mysteries.

And be sure to enjoy this video of the Juno mission, courtesy of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory:

Further Reading: phys.org, Science

Planetpalooza: All Bright Planets Visible in the July Dusk Sky

Moon and Venus
Moon and Venus
Venus and the waxing crescent Moon above the Grand Palais in Paris, France from May 17th. Image credit: Gwenael Blanck

Missed the planets in the dusk sky in early 2018? This summer’s astronomical blockbuster sees the return of all the classical naked eye planets in the dusk sky, in a big way.

The Sky Scene in July

This coming July 2018 features a rare look at the solar system in profile: you can see Mercury and Venus low in the dusk looking westward immediately after sunset, with Jupiter high to the south, Saturn rising in the east, and Mars rising just behind. This isn’t a true grouping or grand conjunction, as the planets span a 170 degree swath of the ecliptic from Mercury to Mars (too bad they’re not in orbital order!) but a product of our Earthly vantage point looking out over the swath of inner solar system in the evening sky.

Can you manage a “planetary marathon” and collect all five this coming Fourth of July weekend? Here’s a quick rundown of all the planetary action from west to east:

Mercury
An amazing view – Mercury through the telescope from May 5th. Image credit and copyright: Roger Hutchinson.

Mercury’s July apparition – fleeting Mercury is always the toughest of the planets to catch, low to the west. -0.3 magnitude Mercury actually forms a straight line with the bright +1st/2nd magnitude stars Castor and Pollux in Gemini the Twins later this week on the evening of June 27th. Mercury reaches greatest elongation 26 degrees east of the Sun on July 12th, presenting a half illuminated, 8” disk. The angle of the evening ecliptic is canted southward in July, meaning that the position of the planets in the evening sky also favors southern viewers. July also presents another interesting mercurial challenge, as Mercury passes in front of the Beehive Open cluster (Messier 44) in the heart of the constellation Cancer on the night of July 3rd/4th.

planets
The span of the planets through late-July at dusk. Credit: Stellarium.

Venus this summer – higher up at dusk, brilliant Venus rules the evening sky, shining at magnitude -4. Venus is so bright that you can easily pick it up this month before sunset… if you know exactly where to look for it. Venus reaches greatest elongation 46 degrees east of the Sun on August 17th, presenting a featureless half-illuminated disk 25” in diameter near a point known as dichotomy. Venus also flirts with the bright star Regulus (Alpha Leonis) in July, passing a degrees from the star on July 10th. Fun fact: Venus can actually occult (pass in front of) Regulus and last did so on July 7th, 1959 and will do so next on October 1st, 2044.

Jupiter
Jupiter, with the shadow of Europa in transit from June 6th. Image credit and copyright: Ralph Smyth.

Jupiter Rules – The King of the Planets, Jupiter rules the sky after darkness falls, crossing the astronomical constellation Libra the Scales. Fresh off of its May 9th opposition, Jupiter still shines at a respectable magnitude -2 in July, with a disk 36” across. Jupiter heads towards quadrature 90 degrees east of the Sun on August 6th, meaning the planet and its retinue of four Galilean moons cast their respective shadows off to one side. In fact, we also see a series of fine double shadow transits across the Jovian cloud tops involving Io and Europa starting on July 29th.

saturn
The glorious planet Saturn. Image credit and copyright: Paul Stewart

…and Saturn makes five: Stately Saturn never fails to impress. Also just past its June 27th opposition, the rings are still tipped open narrowing down only slightly from last year’s widest angle of 27 degrees, assuring an amazing view. Shining at magnitude 0 and subtending 42” (including rings) in July, Saturn traverses the star-rich fields of the astronomical constellation Sagittarius the Archer this summer. Look at Saturn, and you’re glimpsing the edge of the known solar system right up until William Herschel discovered Uranus on the night of March 13th, 1781.

The origins of a dust storm: Mars from late May. Image credit and copyright: Efrain Morales.

Enter Mars: We saved the best for last. The Red Planet races towards a fine opposition on July 27th. This is the best approach of Mars since the historic 2003 opposition, and very nearly as favorable: Mars shines at magnitude -2.8 at the end of July, and presents a 24.3” disk. More to come as Mars approaches!

And as with many an opposition, dust storm season has engulfed Mars. Be vigilant, as the ‘Red’ Planet often takes on a sickly yellowish tint during a large dust storm, and this cast will often be apparent even to the naked eye. NASA’s aging Opportunity rover has fallen silent due to the lack of sunlight and solar power, and it’s to be seen if the rover can ride out the storm.

The path of the Moon – The Moon makes a good guidepost as it visits the planets in July. The first eclipse season of 2018 also begins in July, with a partial solar eclipse for Tasmania, SE Australia and the extreme southernmost tip of New Zealand on July 13th and wrapping up with a fine total lunar eclipse favoring Africa, Europe, Asia and Australia on July 27th. Note that this eclipse is only 14 hours after Mars passes opposition… we expect to see plenty of pictures of a ruddy Mars near a Blood Moon eclipse.

The Moon also makes a handy guide to catch each of the planets in the daytime sky… though you’ll need binoculars or a telescope to nab Mercury or Saturn (also, be sure the Sun is physically blocked out of view while hunting for Mercury in the daytime sky!) Here are the respective passes of the Moon near each planet in July:

Planet Date Time Moon Phase/illumination Distance
Mercury July 14th 23UT/7PM EDT Waxing crescent/5% 2.1 degrees
Venus July 16th 4UT/00AM EDT Waxing crescent/14% 1.5 degrees
Jupiter July 21st 2UT/10PM EDT Waxing gibbous/63% 4.2 degrees
Saturn July 25th 5UT/1AM EDT Waxing gibbous/94% 2 degrees
Mars July 27th 16UT/12 EDT Full Moon/100% 8 degrees

Unfortunately, the telescopic planets Uranus and Neptune are left out of the July evening view; Uranus is currently crossing the constellation Aries and Neptune resides in Aquarius, respectively. Pluto is, however, currently in the direction of Sagittarius, and you can also wave to NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft en route to its New Year’s Day 2019 KBO destination Ultima Thule (nee 2014 MU69) near the waxing gibbous Moon on the night of July 26th.

The Moon, Pluto and New Horizons on the evening of July 26th. Credit: Starry Night

And finally, another solar system destination in Ophiuchus the Serpent Bearer beckons telescope owners in July: asteroid 4 Vesta.

All of this is more than enough planetary action to keep planetary observers and imagers up late on forthcoming July evenings.

There was Evidence for Europa’s Geysers Hiding in Plain Sight in Old Spacecraft Data From 1997

Jupiter’s moon Europa continues to fascinate and amaze! In 1979, the Voyager missions provided the first indications that an interior ocean might exist beneath it’s icy surface. Between 1995 and 2003, the Galileo spaceprobe provided the most detailed information to date on Jupiter’s moons to date. This information bolstered theories about how life could exist in a warm water ocean located at the core-mantle boundary.

Even though the Galileo mission ended when the probe crashed into Jupiter’s atmosphere, the spaceprobe is still providing vital information on Europa. After analyzing old data from the mission, NASA scientists have found independent evidence that Europa’s interior ocean is venting plumes of water vapor from its surface. This is good news for future mission to Europa, which will attempt to search these plumes for signs of life.

The study which describes their findings, titled “Evidence of a plume on Europa from Galileo magnetic and plasma wave signatures“, recently appeared in the journal Nature Astronomy. The study was led by Xianzhe Jia, a space physicist from the Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering at the University of Michigan, and included members from UCLA and the University of Iowa.

Artist’s concept of the Galileo space probe passing through the Jupiter system. Credit: NASA

The data was collected in 1997 by Galileo during a flyby of Europa that brought it to within 200 km (124 mi) of the moon’s surface. At the time, its Magnetometer (MAG) sensor detected a brief, localized bend in Jupiter’s magnetic field, which remained unexplained until now. After running the data through new and advanced computer models, the team was able to create a simulation that showed that this was caused by interaction between the magnetic field and one of the Europa’s plumes.

This analysis confirmed ultraviolet observations made by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope in 2012, which suggested the presence of water plumes on the moon’s surface. However, this new analysis used data collected much closer to the source, which indicated how Europa’s plumes interact with the ambient flow of plasma contained within Jupiter’s powerful magnetic field.

In addition to being the lead author on this study, Jia is also the co-investigator for two instruments that will travel aboard the Europa Clipper mission – which may launch as soon as 2022 to explore the moon’s potential habitability. Jia’s and his colleagues were inspired to reexamine data from the Galileo mission thanks to Melissa McGrath, a member of the SETI Institute and also a member of the Europa Clipper science team.

During a presentation to her fellow team scientists, McGrath highlighted other Hubble observations of Europa. As Jiang explained in a recent NASA press release:

“The data were there, but we needed sophisticated modeling to make sense of the observation. One of the locations she mentioned rang a bell. Galileo actually did a flyby of that location, and it was the closest one we ever had. We realized we had to go back. We needed to see whether there was anything in the data that could tell us whether or not there was a plume.”

Artist’s impression of a water vapor plume on Europa. Credit: NASA/ESA/K. Retherford/SWRI

When they first examined the information 21 years ago, the high-resolution data obtained by the MAG instrument showed something strange. But it was thanks to the lessons provided by the Cassini mission, which explored the plumes on Saturn’s moon Enceladus, that the team knew what to look for. This included material from the plumes which became ionized by the gas giant’s magnetosphere, leaving a characteristic blip in the magnetic field.

After reexamining the data, they found that the same characteristic bend (localized and brief) in the magnetic field was present around Europa. Jia’s team also consulted data from Galileo’s Plasma Wave Spectrometer (PWS) instrument to measure plasma waves caused by charged particles in gases around Europa’s atmosphere, which also appeared to back the theory of a plume.

This magnetometry data and plasma wave signatures were then layered into new 3D modeling developed by the team at the University of Michigan (which simulated the interactions of plasma with Solar system bodies). Last, they added the data obtained from Hubble in 2012 that suggested the dimensions of the potential plumes. The end result was a simulated plume that matched the magnetic field and plasma signatures they saw in the Galileo data.

As Robert Pappalardo, a Europa Clipper project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), indicated:

“There now seem to be too many lines of evidence to dismiss plumes at Europa. This result makes the plumes seem to be much more real and, for me, is a tipping point. These are no longer uncertain blips on a faraway image.” 

Artist’s concept of a Europa Clipper mission, which will study Europa in 2022-2025 to search for signs of life. Credit: NASA/JPL

The findings are certainly good news for the Europa Clipper mission, which is expected to make the journey to Jupiter between 2022 and 2025. When this probe arrives in the Jovian system, it will establish an orbit around Jupiter and conduct rapid, low-altitude flybys of Europa. Assuming that plume activity does take place on the surface of the moon, the Europa Clipper will sample the frozen liquid and dust particles for signs of life.

“If plumes exist, and we can directly sample what’s coming from the interior of Europa, then we can more easily get at whether Europa has the ingredients for life,” Pappalardo said. “That’s what the mission is after. That’s the big picture.”

At present, the mission team is busy looking at potential orbital paths for the Europa Clipper mission. With this new research in hand, the team will choose a path that will take the spaceprobe above the plume locations so that it is in an ideal position to search them for signs of life. If all goes as planned, the Europa Clipper could be the first of several probes that finally proves that there is life beyond Earth.

And be sure to check out this video of the Europa Clipper mission, courtesy of NASA:

Further Reading: NASA, Nature

By Jove: Jupiter at Opposition for 2018

A recent capture of Jupiter from April 21st. Image credit and copyright: Efrain Morales Rivera.

It’s a question I’ve fielded lots this weekend leading up to last night’s April Pink Full Moon, and one I expect we’ll get again tonight: “What’s that bright star near the Moon?”

That bright “star” is actually a planet, the king of them all as far as our Solar System is concerned: Jupiter. May also ushers in Jupiter observing season, as the planet reaches opposition on May 9th, rising in the east opposite to the setting Sun to the west. Jupiter now joins Venus in the dusk sky, ending the planetary drought plaguing many an evening star party.

Looking east tonight (April 30th) at 9 PM local. Created using Stellarium.

All planetary news seems to lead back to Jupiter this season. Just last week, we wrote about a recent study, suggesting that Jupiter actually gets hit by asteroids and comets on a much more regular basis than astronomers thought.

It’s always worth keeping a sharp eye on Jupiter. Shining a magnitude -2.5 near opposition, you can even pick Jupiter out against the deep blue daytime sky… if you know exactly where to look for it. The Moon visits Jupiter once every orbit, and the next time to try this feat of visual athletics is on May 27th, just before sunset.

Jupiter is 4.4 astronomical units (658 million kilometers) distant at opposition this year, and presents a disk 45” across.

At the eyepiece, Jupiter presents a roiling upper atmosphere, completing an amazing rotation once every 9.9 hours. This is not only fast enough to give Jove a noticeable equatorial bulge at its equator, but you can also observe and image Jupiter in its entirety in just one clear evening.

One of the first things that becomes apparent observing Jupiter at low power are its retinue of four Galilean moons. These are, from interior outward: Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. Speedy Io takes just 1.8 days to orbit Jupiter once, while outermost Callisto takes a leisurely 16.7 days to make one circuit around Jupiter. Not only is it fun to note the changes in configuration of Jupiter’s major moons from night to night, but it’s interesting to watch them cast shadows onto Jupiter’s cloud tops and alternately disappear and reappear in and out of Jupiter’s shadow.

Two shadows crossing the face of Jupiter on July 30th, 2018. Created using Stellarium.

A few times a year, you can catch two moons casting a shadow on Jupiter at once. These usually happen in seasons, with the next pair involving Io and Europa (the most frequent transiters) set to occur on July 30th, 2018. Rarer still are triple transits, which last occurred on January 24th, 2015 and will happen next on March 20th, 2032. You’ll never see a quadruple transit though… and the outermost moon Callisto is the only one that can “miss” Jupiter, as it does in 2018.

The celestial scene changes, too, like a spotlight cast over the stage of the sky. At opposition, for example, Jupiter and its moons cast their respective shadows straight back, nearly behind them from our perspective. Watch how this changes, however, as Jupiter heads towards quadrature at 90 degrees elongation east of the Sun on August 6th, 2018 and we see Jupiter and its moons cast their shadows to the side.

Danish astronomer Ole Rømer noted a discrepancy in the timings of shadow transits near opposition versus quadrature and correctly realized that light from the events was actually taking time to transit from Jupiter to his telescope on Earth, and made the first crude measurement of the speed of light in 1676.

Crank up the magnification, and the Great Red Spot will pop into view if it’s turned Earthward. Though this centuries-long storm has been shrinking in recent years, it also seems to be condensing and reddening once again, versus the pale salmon color its exhibited as of late. How old is the Great Red Spot? Will it disappear this century, disappointing legions of school kids who diligently crayon in a ruby red eye on Jove?

One thing is for sure; the face of Jove does change over time. Another interesting example is the disappearing act that Jove’s Southern Equatorial Belt (SEB) makes every decade or so… this last occurred during 2010 season, and we may soon be due again. It would be an amazing scientific opportunity if this were to occur before NASA’s Juno spacecraft completes its mission this summer. Our question: why does the SEB disappear, while the NEB seems to be a permanent fixture on Jove?

All mysteries presented by the largest planet in our solar system, this opposition season 2018.

-Track the positions of Jupiter’s moons and the Great Red Spot using the SETI PDS Rings node, S&T’s app and Project Pluto.

Asteroids Smack Jupiter More Often Than Astronomers Thought

Jupiter Impact
Jupiter Impact
Pow: The July 1994 impact of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 on Jupiter, captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: R. Evans/J. Trauger/H. Hammel/HST Comet Science Team/NASA.

Are you keeping a eye on Jupiter? The King of the Planets, Jove presents a swirling upper atmosphere full of action, a worthy object of telescopic study as it heads towards another fine opposition on May 9th, 2018.

Now, an interesting international study out of the School of Engineering in Bilbao, Spain, the Astronomical Society of France, the Meath Astronomical Group in Dublin Ireland, the Astronomical Society of Australia, and the Esteve Duran Observatory in Spain gives us a fascinating and encouraging possibly, and another reason to keep a sharp eye on old Jove: Jupiter may just get smacked with asteroids on a more regular basis than previously thought.

The study is especially interesting, as it primarily focused in on flashes chronicled by amateur imagers and observers in recent years. In particular, researchers focused on impact events witnessed on March 17th 2016 and May 26th, 2017, along with the comparison of exogenous (of cosmic origin) dust measured in the upper atmosphere. This allowed researchers to come up with an interesting estimate: Jupiter most likely gets hit by an asteroid 5-20 meters in diameter (for comparison, the Chelyabinsk bolide was an estimated 20 meters across) 10 to 65 times every year, though researchers extrapolate that a dedicated search might only nab an impact flash or scar once every 0.4 to 2.4 years or so.

Compare this impact rate with the Earth, which gets hit by a Chelyabinsk-sized 20-meter impactor about once every half century or so. Incidentally, we know this impact rate on Earth better than ever before, largely due to U.S. Department of Defense classified assets in space continually watching for nuclear tests and missile launches, which also pick up an occasional meteor “photobomb.”

Small asteroid impacts over the span of the Earth over a 20 year period. NASA/Planetary Science.

One reason we may never have witnessed a meteor impact on Jupiter is, astronomers (both professional and amateur) never thought to look for them. The big wake-up call was the impact of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 in July 1994, an event witnessed by the newly refurbished Hubble Space Telescope as the resulting impact scars were easily visible in backyard telescopes for weeks afterward. Back in the day, speculation was rampant in the days leading up to the impact: would the collision be visible at all? Or would gigantic Jupiter simply gobble up the tiny comet fragments with nary a belch?

Australian amateur astronomer Anthony Wesley also caught an interesting impact (scar?) in 2009, and every few years or so, we get word of an elusive flash reported on the Jovian cloudtops, sometimes corroborated by a secondary independent observation or a resulting impact scar, and sometimes not.

An impact scar (top center on the disk) on Jupiter, captured on July 19th, 2009. Image credit: Anthony Wesley.

Of course, there are factors which will lower said ideal versus the actual observed impact rate. There’s always a month or so a year, for example, when Jupiter is near solar conjunction on the far side of the Sun, and out of range for observation. Also, we only see half of the Jovian disk from our Earthly perspective at any given time, and we’re about to lose our only set of eyes in orbit around Jupiter – NASA’s Juno spacecraft – later this summer, unless there’s a last minute mission extension.

On the plus side, however, Jupiter is a fast rotator, spinning on its axis once every 9.9 hours. This also means that near opposition, you can also track Jupiter through one full rotation in a single evening.

Finding Jupiter: looking eastward tonight at around 11PM local. Credit Stellarium.

Then there’s the planet’s location in the sky: Currently, Jupiter’s crossing the southern constellation of Libra, and opposition for Jove moves about one astronomical constellation eastward along the ecliptic a year. Jupiter will bottom out along the ecliptic in late 2019, and won’t pop back up north of the celestial equator until May 2022. And while it’s not impossible for northern observers to keep tabs on Jupiter when it’s down south, we certainly get more gaps in coverage around this time.

Hale-Bopp’s close inbound passage near Jupiter in 1996. Credit: NASA/JPL-Horizons.

Should we hail Jove as a protective ‘cosmic goal-tender,’ or fear it as the bringer of death and destruction? There are theories that Jupiter may be both: for example, Jupiter altered the inbound path of Comet Hale-Bopp in 1997, shortening its orbital period from 4,200 to 2,533 years. The 2000 book Rare Earth even included the hypothesis of Jupiter as a cosmic debris sweeper as one of the factors for why life evolved on Earth… if this is true, it’s an imperfect one, as Earth does indeed still get hit as well.

All reasons to keep an eye on Jupiter in the 2018 opposition season.

-See something strange? The ALPO Jupiter observers section wants to know!