The Juno mission to Jupiter has been extended to September 2025 – or however long the spacecraft can keep operating around Jupiter.
While Juno has so far focused its attention on the giant planet alone, the mission extension will include observations of Jupiter’s rings and large moons, with targeted observations and close flybys planned of the moons Ganymede, Europa, and Io.
This will be the first close flybys of these moons since the Galileo mission in 1995-2003.
Are spirits amongst the clouds of Jupiter? The answer might be yes! A recent publication in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets has identified what appear to be “Sprites” in the Jovian Atmosphere.
In European Folklore, ‘Sprites’ (derived from Latin ‘spiritus’ or spirit) were elemental and ethereal beings visiting Earth. The term is fitting for “lightning sprites”, a natural meteorological phenomenon with many eye-witness testimonies but not captured on camera until 1989. Created by lightning discharges in Earth’s atmosphere, sprites are part of larger family of phenomena called TLE’s, or “Transient Luminous Events”, that last for only fractions of a second.
The venerable Hubble Space Telescope has given us another gorgeous picture of Jupiter and its moon Europa. The incredibly sharp image was captured on August 25th, and shows some of the stunning detail in Jupiter’s stormy atmosphere. Hidden in all that stormy activity is something new: a bright white storm plume travelling at about 560 km/h (350 mp/h).
Most massive planet in the solar system – twice that of all the other planets combined. This giant world formed from the same cloud of dust and gas that became our Sun and the rest of the planets. But Jupiter was the first-born of our planetary family. As the first planet, Jupiter’s massive gravitational field likely shaped the rest of the entire solar system. Jupiter could’ve played a role in where all the planets aligned in their orbits around the Sun…or didn’t as the asteroid belt is a vast region which could’ve been occupied by another planet were it not for Jupiter’s gravity. Gas giants like Jupiter can also hurl entire planets out of their solar systems, or themselves spiral into their stars. Saturn’s formation several million years later probably spared Jupiter this fate. Jupiter may also act as a “comet catcher.” Comets and asteroids which could otherwise fall toward the inner solar system and strike the rocky worlds like Earth are captured by Jupiter’s gravitational field instead and ultimately plunge into Jupiter’s clouds. But at other times in Earth’s history, Jupiter may have had the opposite effect, hurling asteroids in our direction – typically a bad thing but may have also resulted in water-rich rocks coming to Earth that led to the blue planet we know of today.
The better our technologies get, the better we get at finding objects in space. That’s certainly true of Jupiter and its moons. Prior to Galileo, nobody knew the other planets had moons. Then in 1609/10, as he made improvements to his telescope, he aimed it at the gas giant and eventually found four moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. Now those four natural satellites also bear his name: the Galilean moons.
Over the centuries since then, and especially in our digital age, astronomical tools and methods kept improving. In particular, wide-field CCD (Charge Coupled Devices) have led to an explosion of astronomical discoveries. In recent years, the confirmed number of Jovian moons has risen to 79. Now, a new study says that there may be 600 small irregular moons orbiting Jupiter.
On July 5, 2016, NASA’s Juno spacecraft arrived around Jupiter, becoming the second mission in history to study the gas giant from orbit – the last being the Galileo spacecraft, which orbited Jupiter from 1995 to 2003. Since then, the spacecraft has gathered data on Jupiter’s atmosphere, composition, gravity field, and magnetic field in the hopes of learning more about how the planet formed and evolved.
In addition, the spacecraft has gathered some of the most breathtaking images ever taken of Jupiter and its system of moons. In fact, as the spacecraft was making another approach towards Jupiter on December 26th, 2019, it managed to capture the first infrared images of the moon Ganymede’s northern polar region. These images will inform future missions to this satellite, which could host life beneath its icy mantle.
There’s a new storm brewing on Jupiter. The most famous storm on Jupiter is the Great Red Spot, which has been active since at least the time of Galileo. Most of Jupiter’s storms don’t last for hundreds of years. They grow and fade just as they do on Earth. This latest storm was discovered by amateur astronomer Clyde Foster.
It’s difficult to imagine the magnitude of storms on Jupiter. The gas giant’s most visible atmospheric feature, the Great Red Spot, may be getting smaller, but one hundred years ago, it was about 40,000 km (25,000 miles) in diameter, or three times Earth’s diameter.
Jupiter’s atmosphere also features thunderheads that are five times taller than Earth’s: a whopping 64 km (40 miles) from bottom to top. Its atmosphere is not entirely understood, though NASA’s Juno spacecraft is advancing our understanding. The planet may contain strange things like a layer of liquid metallic hydrogen.
Now a group of scientists are combining the power of the Hubble Space Telescope, the Gemini Observatory and the Juno spacecraft to probe Jupiter’s atmosphere, and the awe-inspiring storms that spawn there.