Even Ganymede is Showing Tectonic Activity. We’re Going to Need Another Icy Moon Orbiter

Jupiter's moon Ganymede, the largest moon in the Solar System, seen orbiting Jupiter, the largest planet in the Solar System. This image was taken by the Cassini spacecraft. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Ganymede was shaped by pronounced periods of tectonic activity in the past, according to a new paper. It’s no longer active and its surface is more-or-less frozen in place now. But this discovery opens the door to better planning for future missions to Jupiter’s other frozen moon Europa. Unlike Ganymede, Europa is still tectonically active, and understanding past geological activity on Ganymede helps us understand present-day Europa.

Continue reading “Even Ganymede is Showing Tectonic Activity. We’re Going to Need Another Icy Moon Orbiter”

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

Uranus & Neptune May Keep “Hitler’s Acid” Stable Under Massive Pressure

“Hitler’s acid” is a colloquial name used to refer to Orthocarbonic acid – a name which was inspired from the fact that the molecule’s appearance resembles a swastika. As chemical compounds go, it is quite exotic, and chemists are still not sure how to create it under laboratory conditions.

But it just so happens that this acid could exist in the interiors of planets like Uranus and Neptune. According to a recent study from a team of Russian chemists, the conditions inside Uranus and Neptune could be ideal for creating exotic molecular and polymeric compounds, and keeping them under stable conditions.

The study was produced by researchers from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT) and the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech). Titled “Novel Stable Compounds in the C-H-O Ternary System at High Pressure”, the paper describes how the high pressure environments inside planets could create compounds that exist nowhere else in the Solar System.

Orthocarbonic acid (also known as Hitler's acid). Credit: Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology
Orthocarbonic acid (also known as Hitler’s acid). Credit: Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology

Professor Artem Oganov – a professor at Skoltech and the head of MIPT’s Computational Materials Discovery Lab – is the study’s lead author. Years back, he and a team of researchers developed the worlds most powerful algorithm for predicting the formation of crystal structures and chemical compounds under extreme conditions.

Known as the Universal Structure Predictor: Evolutionary Xtallography (UPSEX), scientists have since used this algorithm to predict the existence of substances that are considered impossible in classical chemistry, but which could exist where pressures and temperatures are high enough – i.e. the interior of a planet.

With the help of Gabriele Saleh, a postdoc member of MIPT and the co-author of the paper, the two decided to use the algorithm to study how the carbon-hydrogen-oxygen system would behave under high pressure. These elements are plentiful in our Solar System, and are the basis of organic chemistry.

Until now, it has not been clear how these elements behave when subjected to extremes of temperature and pressure. What they found was that under these types of extreme conditions, which are the norm inside gas giants, these elements form some truly exotic compounds.

The interior structure of Uranus. Credit: Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology
Diagram of the interior structure of Uranus. Credit: Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology

As Prof. Oganov explained in a MIPT press release:

“The smaller gas giants – Uranus and Neptune – consist largely of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. We have found that at a pressure of several million atmospheres unexpected compounds should form in their interiors. The cores of these planets may largely consist of these exotic materials.”

Under normal pressure – i.e. what we experience here on Earth (100 kPa) – any carbon, hydrogen or oxygen compounds (with the exception of methane, water and CO²) are unstable. But at pressures in the range 1 to 400 GPa (10,000 to 4 million times Earth normal), they become stable enough to form several new substances.

These include carbonic  acid, orthocarbonic acid (Hitler’s acid) and other rare compounds. This was a very unusual find, considering that these chemicals are unstable under normal pressure conditions. In carbonic acid’s case, it can only remain stable when kept at very low temperatures in a vacuum.

 The interior structure of Neptune. Credit: Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology
Diagram of the interior structure of Neptune. Credit: Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology

At pressures of 314 GPa, they determined that carbonic acid (H²CO³) would react with water to form orthocarbonic acid (H4CO4). This acid is also extremely unstable, and so far, scientists have not yet been able to produce it in a laboratory environment.

This research is of considerable importance when it comes to modelling the interior of planets like Uranus and Neptune. Like all gas giants, the structure and composition of their interiors have remained the subject of speculation due to their inaccessible nature. But it could also have implications in the search for life beyond Earth.

According to Oganov and Saleh, the interiors of many moons that orbit gas giants (like Europa, Ganymede and Enceladus) also experience these types of pressure conditions. Knowing that these kinds of exotic compounds could exist in their interiors is likely to change what scientist’s think is going on under their icy surfaces.

“It was previously thought that the oceans in these satellites are in direct contact with the rocky core and a chemical reaction took place between them,” said Oganov. “Our study shows that the core should be ‘wrapped’ in a layer of crystallized carbonic acid, which means that a reaction between the core and the ocean would be impossible.”

Europa's cracked, icy surface imaged by NASA's Galileo spacecraft in 1998. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute.
Europa’s cracked, icy surface imaged by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft in 1998. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI

For some time, scientists have understood that at high temperatures and pressures, the properties of matter change pretty drastically. And while here on Earth, atmospheric pressure and temperatures are quite stable (just the way we like them!), the situation in the outer Solar System is much different.

By modelling what can occur under these conditions, and knowing what chemical buildings blocks are involved, we could be able to determine with a fair degree of confidence what the interior’s of inaccessible bodies are like. This will give us something to work with when the day comes (hopefully soon) that we can investigate them directly.

Who knows? In the coming years, a mission to Europa may find that the core-mantle boundary is not a habitable environment after all. Rather than a watery environment kept warm by hydrothermal activity, it might instead by a thick layer of chemical soup.

Then again, we may find that the interaction of these chemicals with geothermal energy could produce organic life that is even more exotic!

Further Reading: MIPT, Nature Scientific Reports

Juno Transmits 1st Orbital Imagery after Swooping Arrival Over Jovian Cloud Tops and Powering Up

This color view from NASA's Juno spacecraft is made from some of the first images taken by JunoCam after the spacecraft entered orbit around Jupiter on July 4, 2016.  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS
This color view from NASA’s Juno spacecraft is made from some of the first images taken by JunoCam after the spacecraft entered orbit around Jupiter on July 4, 2016. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS

NASA’s newly arrived Jovian orbiter Juno has transmitted its first imagery since reaching orbit last week on July 4 after swooping over Jupiter’s cloud tops and powering back up its package of state-of-the-art science instruments for unprecedented research into determining the origin of our solar systems biggest planet.

The breathtaking image clearly shows the well known banded cloud tops in Jupiter’s atmosphere as well as the famous Great Red Spot and three of the humongous planet’s four largest moons — Io, Europa and Ganymede.

The ‘Galilean’ moons are annotated from left to right in the lead image.

Juno’s visible-light camera named JunoCam was turned on six days after Juno fired its main engine to slow down and be captured into orbit around Jupiter – the ‘King of the Planets’ following a nearly five year long interplanetary voyage from Earth.

The image was taken when Juno was 2.7 million miles (4.3 million kilometers) distant from Jupiter on July 10, at 10:30 a.m. PDT (1:30 p.m. EDT, 5:30 UTC), and traveling on the outbound leg of its initial 53.5-day capture orbit.

Juno came within only about 3000 miles of the cloud tops and passed through Jupiter’s extremely intense and hazardous radiation belts during orbital arrival over the north pole.

Illustration of NASA's Juno spacecraft firing its main engine to slow down and go into orbit around Jupiter. Lockheed Martin built the Juno spacecraft for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.  Credit: NASA/Lockheed Martin
Illustration of NASA’s Juno spacecraft firing its main engine to slow down and go into orbit around Jupiter. Lockheed Martin built the Juno spacecraft for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Credit: NASA/Lockheed Martin

The newly released JunoCam image is visible proof that Juno survived the do-or-die orbital fireworks on America’s Independence Day that placed the baskeball-court sized probe into orbit around Jupiter – and is in excellent health to carry out its groundbreaking mission to elucidate Jupiter’s ‘Genesis.’

“This scene from JunoCam indicates it survived its first pass through Jupiter’s extreme radiation environment without any degradation and is ready to take on Jupiter,” said Scott Bolton, principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, in a statement.

“We can’t wait to see the first view of Jupiter’s poles.”

Within two days of the nerve wracking and fully automated 35-minute-long Jupiter Orbital Insertion (JOI) maneuver, the Juno engineering team begun powering up five of the probes science instruments on July 6.

Animation of Juno 14-day orbits starting in late 2016.  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Animation of Juno 14-day orbits starting in late 2016. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

All nonessential instruments and systems had been powered down in the final days of Juno’s approach to Jupiter to ensure the maximum chances for success of the critical JOI engine firing.

“We had to turn all our beautiful instruments off to help ensure a successful Jupiter orbit insertion on July 4,” said Bolton.

“But next time around we will have our eyes and ears open. You can expect us to release some information about our findings around September 1.”

Juno resumed high data rate communications with Earth on July 5, the day after achieving orbit.

We can expect to see more JunoCam images taken during this first orbital path around the massive planet.

But the first high resolution images are still weeks away and will not be available until late August on the inbound leg when the spacecraft returns and swoops barely above the clouds.

“JunoCam will continue to take images as we go around in this first orbit,” said Candy Hansen, Juno co-investigator from the Planetary Science Institute, Tucson, Arizona, in a statement.

“The first high-resolution images of the planet will be taken on August 27 when Juno makes its next close pass to Jupiter.”

All of JunoCams images will be released to the public.

During a 20 month long science mission – entailing 37 orbits lasting 14 days each – the probe will plunge to within about 2,600 miles (4,100 kilometers) of the turbulent cloud tops.

It will collect unparalleled new data that will unveil the hidden inner secrets of Jupiter’s origin and evolution as it peers “beneath the obscuring cloud cover of Jupiter and study its auroras to learn more about the planet’s origins, structure, atmosphere and magnetosphere.”

The solar powered Juno spacecraft approached Jupiter over its north pole, affording an unprecedented perspective on the Jovian system – “which looks like a mini solar system” – as it flew through the giant planets intense radiation belts in ‘autopilot’ mode.

Juno is the first solar powered probe to explore Jupiter or any outer planet.

In the final weeks of the approach JunoCam captured dramatic views of Jupiter and all four of the Galilean Moons moons — Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.

At the post JOI briefing on July 5, these were combined into a spectacular JunoCam time-lapse movie released by Bolton and NASA.

Watch and be mesmerized -“for humanity, our first real glimpse of celestial harmonic motion” says Bolton.

Video caption: NASA’s Juno spacecraft captured a unique time-lapse movie of the Galilean satellites in motion about Jupiter. The movie begins on June 12th with Juno 10 million miles from Jupiter, and ends on June 29th, 3 million miles distant. The innermost moon is volcanic Io; next in line is the ice-crusted ocean world Europa, followed by massive Ganymede, and finally, heavily cratered Callisto. Galileo observed these moons to change position with respect to Jupiter over the course of a few nights. From this observation he realized that the moons were orbiting mighty Jupiter, a truth that forever changed humanity’s understanding of our place in the cosmos. Earth was not the center of the Universe. For the first time in history, we look upon these moons as they orbit Jupiter and share in Galileo’s revelation. This is the motion of nature’s harmony. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The $1.1 Billion Juno was launched on Aug. 5, 2011 from Cape Canaveral, Florida atop the most powerful version of the Atlas V rocket augmented by 5 solid rocket boosters and built by United Launch Alliance (ULA). That same Atlas V 551 version just launched MUOS-5 for the US Navy on June 24.

The Juno spacecraft was built by prime contractor Lockheed Martin in Denver.

The mission will end in February 2018 with an intentional death dive into the atmosphere to prevent any possibility of a collision with Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons that is a potential abode for life.

The last NASA spacecraft to orbit Jupiter was Galileo in 1995. It explored the Jovian system until 2003.

From Earth’s perspective, Jupiter was in conjunction with Earth’s Moon shortly after JOI during the first week in July.

Personally its thrilling to realize that an emissary from Earth is once again orbiting Jupiter after a 13 year long hiatus as seen in the authors image below – coincidentally taken the same day as JunoCam’s first image from orbit.

Juno, Jupiter and the Moon as seen from I-95 over Dunn, NC on July 10, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Juno, Jupiter and the Moon as seen from I-95 over Dunn, NC on July 10, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about Juno at Jupiter, SpaceX CRS-9 rocket launch, ISS, ULA Atlas and Delta rockets, Orbital ATK Cygnus, Boeing, Space Taxis, Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, Antares, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

July 15-18: “SpaceX launches to ISS on CRS-9, Juno at Jupiter, ULA Delta 4 Heavy spy satellite, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew, Curiosity explores Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

NASA's Juno probe captured the image data for this composite picture during its Earth flyby on Oct. 9 over Argentina,  South America and the southern Atlantic Ocean. Raw imagery was reconstructed and aligned by Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo, and false-color blue has been added to the view taken by a near-infrared filter that is typically used to detect methane. Credit: NASA/JPL/SwRI/MSSS/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo
NASA’s Juno probe captured the image data for this composite picture during its Earth flyby on Oct. 9 over Argentina, South America and the southern Atlantic Ocean. Raw imagery was reconstructed and aligned by Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo, and false-color blue has been added to the view taken by a near-infrared filter that is typically used to detect methane. Credit: NASA/JPL/SwRI/MSSS/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo

7 Days Out From Orbital Insertion, NASA’s Juno Images Jupiter and its Largest Moons

This annotated color view of Jupiter and its four largest moons -- Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto -- was taken by the JunoCam camera on NASA's Juno spacecraft on June 21, 2016, at a distance of 6.8 million miles (10.9 million kilometers) from Jupiter. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
This annotated color view of Jupiter and its four largest moons — Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto — was taken by the JunoCam camera on NASA’s Juno spacecraft on June 21, 2016, at a distance of 6.8 million miles (10.9 million kilometers) from Jupiter. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Now just 7 days out from a critical orbital insertion burn, NASA’s Jupiter-bound Juno orbiter is closing in fast on the massive gas giant. And as its coming into focus the spacecraft has begun snapping a series of beautiful images of the biggest planet and its biggest moons.

In a newly released color image snapped by the probes educational public outreach camera named Junocam, banded Jupiter dominates a spectacular scene that includes the giant planet’s four largest moons — Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.

Junocam’s image of the approaching Jovian system was taken on June 21, 2016, at a distance of 6.8 million miles (10.9 million kilometers) and hints at the multitude of photos and science riches to come from Juno.

“Juno on Jupiter’s Doorstep,” says a NASA description. “And the alternating light and dark bands of the planet’s clouds are just beginning to come into view,” revealing its “distinctive swirling bands of orange, brown and white.”

This color view of Jupiter and its four largest moons -- Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto -- was taken by the JunoCam camera on NASA's Juno spacecraft on June 21, 2016, at a distance of 6.8 million miles (10.9 million kilometers) from Jupiter. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
This color view of Jupiter and its four largest moons — Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto — was taken by the JunoCam camera on NASA’s Juno spacecraft on June 21, 2016, at a distance of 6.8 million miles (10.9 million kilometers) from Jupiter. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Rather appropriately for an American space endeavor, the fate of the entire mission hinges on do or die ‘Independence Day’ fireworks.

On the evening of July 4, Juno must fire its main engine for 35 minutes.

The Joy of JOI – or Jupiter Orbit Insertion – will place NASA’s robotic explorer into a polar orbit around the gas giant.

The approach over the north pole is unlike earlier probes that approached from much lower latitudes nearer the equatorial zone, and thus provide a perspective unlike any other.

After a five-year and 2.8 Billion kilometer (1.7 Billion mile) outbound trek to the Jovian system and the largest planet in our solar system and an intervening Earth flyby speed boost, the moment of truth for Juno is now inexorably at hand.

This colorized composite shows more than half of Earth’s disk over the coast of Argentina and the South Atlantic Ocean as the Juno probe slingshotted by on Oct. 9, 2013 for a gravity assisted acceleration to Jupiter. The mosaic was assembled from raw images taken by the Junocam imager. Credit: NASA/JPL/SwRI/MSSS/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo
This colorized composite shows more than half of Earth’s disk over the coast of Argentina and the South Atlantic Ocean as the Juno probe slingshotted by on Oct. 9, 2013 for a gravity assisted acceleration to Jupiter. The mosaic was assembled from raw images taken by the Junocam imager. Credit: NASA/JPL/SwRI/MSSS/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo

And preparations are in full swing by the science and engineering team to ensure a spectacular Fourth of July fireworks display.

The team has been in contact with Juno 24/7 since June 11 and already uplinked the rocket firing parameters.

Signals traveling at the speed of light take 10 minutes to reach Earth.

The protective cover that shields Juno’s main engine from micrometeorites and interstellar dust was opened on June 20.

“And the software program that will command the spacecraft through the all-important rocket burn was uplinked,” says NASA.

The pressurization of the propulsion system is set for June 28.

“We have over five years of spaceflight experience and only 10 days to Jupiter orbit insertion,” said Rick Nybakken, Juno project manager from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said in a statement.

“It is a great feeling to put all the interplanetary space in the rearview mirror and have the biggest planet in the solar system in our windshield.”

On the night of orbital insertion, Juno will fly within 2,900 miles (4,667 kilometers) of the Jovian cloud tops.

All instruments except those critical for the JOI insertion burn on July 4, will be tuned off on June 29. That includes shutting down Junocam.

“If it doesn’t help us get into orbit, it is shut down,” said Scott Bolton, Juno’s principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.

“That is how critical this rocket burn is. And while we will not be getting images as we make our final approach to the planet, we have some interesting pictures of what Jupiter and its moons look like from five-plus million miles away.”

During a 20 month long science mission – entailing 37 orbits lasting 11 days each – the probe will plunge to within about 3000 miles of the turbulent cloud tops and collect unprecedented new data that will unveil the hidden inner secrets of Jupiter’s origin and evolution.

“Jupiter is the Rosetta Stone of our solar system,” says Bolton. “It is by far the oldest planet, contains more material than all the other planets, asteroids and comets combined and carries deep inside it the story of not only the solar system but of us. Juno is going there as our emissary — to interpret what Jupiter has to say.”

During the orbits, Juno will probe beneath the obscuring cloud cover of Jupiter and study its auroras to learn more about the planet’s origins, structure, atmosphere and magnetosphere.

Junocam has already taken some striking images during the Earth flyby gravity assist speed boost on Oct. 9, 2013.

For example the dazzling portrait of our Home Planet high over the South American coastline and the Atlantic Ocean.

For a hint of what’s to come, see our colorized Junocam mosaic of land, sea and swirling clouds, created by Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo.

NASA's Juno probe captured the image data for this composite picture during its Earth flyby on Oct. 9 over Argentina,  South America and the southern Atlantic Ocean. Raw imagery was reconstructed and aligned by Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo, and false-color blue has been added to the view taken by a near-infrared filter that is typically used to detect methane. Credit: NASA/JPL/SwRI/MSSS/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo
NASA’s Juno probe captured the image data for this composite picture during its Earth flyby on Oct. 9 over Argentina, South America and the southern Atlantic Ocean. Raw imagery was reconstructed and aligned by Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo, and false-color blue has been added to the view taken by a near-infrared filter that is typically used to detect methane. Credit: NASA/JPL/SwRI/MSSS/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo

As Juno sped over Argentina, South America and the South Atlantic Ocean it came within 347 miles (560 kilometers) of Earth’s surface.

During the flyby, the science team observed Earth using most of Juno’s nine science instruments since the slingshot also serves as an important dress rehearsal and key test of the spacecraft’s instruments, systems and flight operations teams.

Juno soars skyward to Jupiter on Aug. 5, 2011 from launch pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 12:25 p.m. EDT. View from the VAB roof. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Juno soars skyward to Jupiter on Aug. 5, 2011 from launch pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 12:25 p.m. EDT. View from the VAB roof. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The $1.1 Billion Juno was launched on Aug. 5, 2011 from Cape Canaveral, Florida atop the most powerful version of the Atlas V rocket augmented by 5 solid rocket boosters and built by United Launch Alliance (ULA). That same Atlas V 551 version just launched MUOS-5 for the US Navy on June 24.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.
Ken Kremer

Juno spacecraft and its science instruments. Image credit: NASA/JPL
Juno spacecraft and its science instruments. Image credit: NASA/JPL
Juno graphic
Juno orbital graphic

What are the Different Masses of the Planets?

It is a well known fact that the planets of the Solar System vary considerably in terms of size. For instance, the planets of the inner Solar System are smaller and denser than the gas/ice giants of the outer Solar System. And in some cases, planets can actually be smaller than the largest moons. But a planet’s size is not necessarily proportional to its mass. In the end, how massive a planet is has more to do with its composition and density.

So while a planet like Mercury may be smaller in size than Jupiter’s moon Ganymede or Saturn’s moon Titan, it is more than twice as massive than they are. And while Jupiter is 318 times as massive as Earth, its composition and density mean that it is only 11.21 times Earth’s size. Let’s go over the planet’s one by one and see just how massive they are, shall we?

Mercury:

Mercury is the Solar System’s smallest planet, with an average diameter of 4879 km (3031.67 mi). It is also one of its densest at 5.427 g/cm3, which is second only to Earth. As a terrestrial planet, it is composed of silicate rock and minerals and is differentiated between an iron core and a silicate mantle and crust. But unlike its peers (Venus, Earth and Mars), it has an abnormally large metallic core relative to its crust and mantle.

All told, Mercury’s mass is approximately 0.330 x 1024 kg, which works out to 330,000,000 trillion metric tons (or the equivalent of 0.055 Earths). Combined with its density and size, Mercury has a surface gravity of 3.7 m/s² (or 0.38 g).

Internal structure of Mercury: 1. Crust: 100–300 km thick 2. Mantle: 600 km thick 3. Core: 1,800 km radius. Credit: MASA/JPL
Internal structure of Mercury: 1. Crust: 100–300 km thick 2. Mantle: 600 km thick 3. Core: 1,800 km radius. Credit: MASA/JPL

Venus:

Venus, otherwise known as “Earth’s Sister Planet”, is so-named because of its similarities in composition, size, and mass to our own. Like Earth, Mercury and Mars, it is a terrestrial planet, and hence quite dense. In fact, with a density of 5.243 g/cm³, it is the third densest planet in the Solar System (behind Earth and Mercury). Its average radius is roughly 6,050 km (3759.3 mi), which is the equivalent of 0.95 Earths.

And when it comes to mass, the planet weighs in at a hefty 4.87 x 1024 kg, or 4,870,000,000 trillion metric tons. Not surprisingly, this is the equivalent of 0.815 Earths, making it the second most massive terrestrial planet in the Solar System. Combined with its density and size, this means that Venus also has comparable gravity to Earth – roughly 8.87 m/s², or 0.9 g.

Earth:

Like the other planets of the inner Solar System, Earth is also a terrestrial planet, composed of metals and silicate rocks differentiated between an iron core and a silicate mantle and crust. Of the terrestrial planets, it is the largest and densest, with an average radius of 6,371.0 km (3,958.8 mi) and a mean of density of 5.514 g/cm3.

The Earth's layers, showing the Inner and Outer Core, the Mantle, and Crust. Credit: discovermagazine.com
The Earth’s layers, showing the Inner and Outer Core, the Mantle, and Crust. Credit: discovermagazine.com

And at 5.97 x 1024 kg (which works out to 5,970,000,000,000 trillion metric tons) Earth is the most massive of all the terrestrial planets. Combined with its size and density, Earth experiences the surface gravity that we are all familiar with – 9.8 m/s², or 1 g.

Mars:

Mars is the third largest terrestrial planet, and the second smallest planet in our Solar System. Like the others, it is composed of metals and silicate rocks that are differentiated between a iron core and a silicate mantle and crust. But while it is roughly half the size of Earth (with a mean diameter of 6792 km, or 4220.35 mi), it is only one-tenth as massive.

In short, Mars has a mass of 0.642 x1024 kg, which works out to 642,000,000 trillion metric tons, or roughly 0.11 the mass of Earth. Combined with its size and density – 3.9335 g/cm³ (which is roughly 0.71 times that of Earth’s) – Mars has a surface gravity of 3.711 m/s² (or 0.376 g).

Jupiter:

Jupiter is the largest planet in the Solar System. With a mean diameter of 142,984 km, it is big enough to fit all the other planets (except Saturn) inside itself, and big enough to fit Earth 11.8 times over. But with a mass of 1898 x 1024 kg (or 1,898,000,000,000 trillion metric tons), Jupiter is more massive than all the other planets in the Solar System combined – 2.5 times more massive, to be exact.

upiter's structure and composition. (Image Credit: Kelvinsong CC by S.A. 3.0)
Jupiter’s structure and composition. (Image Credit: Kelvinsong CC by S.A. 3.0)

However, as a gas giant, it has a lower overall density than the terrestrial planets. It’s mean density is 1.326 g/cm, but this increases considerably the further one ventures towards the core. And though Jupiter does not have a true surface, if one were to position themselves within its atmosphere where the pressure is the same as Earth’s at sea level (1 bar), they would experience a gravitational pull of 24.79 m/s2 (2.528 g).

Saturn:

Saturn is the second largest of the gas giants; with a mean diameter of 120,536 km, it is just slightly smaller than Jupiter. However, it is significantly less massive than its Jovian cousin, with a mass of 569 x 1024 kg (or 569,000,000,000 trillion metric tons). Still, this makes Saturn the second most-massive planet in the Solar System, with 95 times the mass of Earth.

Much like Jupiter, Saturn has a low mean density due to its composition. In fact, with an average density of 0.687 g/cm³, Saturn is the only planet in the Solar System that is less dense than water (1 g/cm³).  But of course, like all gas giants, its density increases considerably the further one ventures towards the core. Combined with its size and mass, Saturn has a “surface” gravity that is just slightly higher than Earth’s – 10.44 m/s², or 1.065 g.

Diagram of Saturn's interior. Credit: Kelvinsong/Wikipedia Commons
Diagram of Saturn’s interior. Credit: Kelvinsong/Wikipedia Commons

Uranus:

With a mean diameter of 51,118 km, Uranus is the third largest planet in the Solar System. But with a mass of 86.8 x 1024 kg (86,800,000,000 trillion metric tons) it is the fourth most massive – which is 14.5 times the mass of Earth. This is due to its mean density of 1.271 g/cm3, which is about three quarters of what Neptune’s is. Between its size, mass, and density, Uranus’ gravity works out to 8.69 m/s2, which is 0.886 g.

Neptune:

Neptune is significantly larger than Earth; at 49,528 km, it is about four times Earth’s size. And with a mass of 102 x 1024 kg (or 102,000,000,000 trillion metric tons) it is also more massive – about 17 times more to be exact. This makes Neptune the third most massive planet in the Solar System; while its density is the greatest of any gas giant (1.638 g/cm3). Combined, this works out to a “surface” gravity of 11.15 m/s2 (1.14 g).

As you can see, the planets of the Solar System range considerably in terms of mass. But when you factor in their variations in density, you can see how a planets mass is not always proportionate to its size. In short, while some planets may be a few times larger than others, they are can have many, many times more mass.

We have written many interesting articles about the planets here at Universe. For instance, here’s Interesting Facts About the Solar System, What are the Colors of the Planets?, What are the Signs of the Planets?, How Dense are the Planets?, and What are the Diameters of the Planets?.

For more information, check out Nine Planets overview of the Solar System, NASA’s Solar System Exploration, and use this site to find out what you would weigh on other planets.

Astronomy Cast has episodes on all of the planets. Here’s Episode 49: Mercury to start!

How Do We Terraform Jupiter’s Moons?

Continuing with our “Definitive Guide to Terraforming“, Universe Today is happy to present to our guide to terraforming Jupiter’s Moons. Much like terraforming the inner Solar System, it might be feasible someday. But should we?

Fans of Arthur C. Clarke may recall how in his novel, 2010: Odyssey Two (or the movie adaptation called 2010: The Year We Make Contact), an alien species turned Jupiter into a new star. In so doing, Jupiter’s moon Europa was permanently terraformed, as its icy surface melted, an atmosphere formed, and all the life living in the moon’s oceans began to emerge and thrive on the surface.

As we explained in a previous video (“Could Jupiter Become a Star“) turning Jupiter into a star is not exactly doable (not yet, anyway). However, there are several proposals on how we could go about transforming some of Jupiter’s moons in order to make them habitable by human beings. In short, it is possible that humans could terraform one of more of the Jovians to make it suitable for full-scale human settlement someday.

Continue reading “How Do We Terraform Jupiter’s Moons?”

Io, Jupiter’s Volcanic Moon

This global view of Jupiter's moon, Io, was obtained during the tenth orbit of Jupiter by NASA's Galileo spacecraft. Credit: NASA

Exploring the Solar System is like peeling an onion. With every layer removed, one finds fresh mysteries to ponder over, each one more confounding than the last. And this is certainly the case when it comes to Jupiter’s system of moons, particularly its four largest – Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. Known as the Galilean Moons, in honor of their founder, these moons possess enough natural wonders to keep scientists busy for centuries.

As Jupiter’s innermost moon, it is also the fourth-largest moon in the Solar System, has the highest density of any known moon, and is the driest known object in the Solar System. It is also one of only four known bodies that experiences active volcanism and – with over 400 active volcanoes – it is the most geologically active body in the Solar System.

Continue reading “Io, Jupiter’s Volcanic Moon”

Jupiter’s Moon Callisto

With 67 confirmed satellites, Jupiter has the largest system of moons in the Solar System. The greatest of these are the four major moons of Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto – otherwise known as the Galilean Moons. Named in honor of their founder, these moons are not only comparable in size to some planets (such as Mercury), they are also some of the few places outside of Earth where liquid water exists, and perhaps even life.

But it is Callisto, the fourth and farthest moon of Jupiter, that may be the most rewarding when it comes to scientific research. In addition to the possibility of a subsurface ocean, this moon is the only Galilean far enough outside of Jupiter’s powerful magnetosphere that it does not experience harmful levels of radiation. This, and the prospect of finding life, make Callisto a prime candidate for future exploration.

Discovery and Naming:

Along with Io, Europa and Ganymede, Callisto was discovered in January of 1610 by Galileo Galilei using a telescope of his own design. Like all the Galilean Moons, it takes its name from one of Zeus’ lovers in classic Greek mythology. Callisto was a nymph (or the daughter of Lycaon) who was associated with the goddess of the hunt, Artemis.

The name was suggested by German astronomer Simon Marius, apparently at the behest of Johannes Kepler. However, Galileo initially refused to use them, and the moons named in his honor were designed as Jupiter I through IV, based on their proximity to their parent planet. Being the farthest planet from Jupiter, Callisto was known as Jupiter IV until the 20th century, by which time, the names suggested by Marius were adopted.

Galilean Family Portrait
The Galilean moons to scale, with Callisto in the bottom left corner. Credit: NASA/JPL

Size, Mass and Orbit:

With a mean radius of 2410.3 ± 1.5 km (0.378 Earths) and a mass of 1.0759 × 1023 kg (0.018 Earths), Callisto is the second largest Jupiter’s moons (after Ganymede) and the third largest satellite in the solar system. Much like Ganymede, it is comparable in size to Mercury – being 99% as large – but due to its mixed composition, it has less than one-third of Mercury mass.

Callisto orbits Jupiter at an average distance (semi-major axis) of 1,882,700 km. It has a very minor eccentricity (0.0074) and ranges in distance from 1,869,000 km at periapsis to 1,897,000 km at apoapsis. This distance, which is far greater than Ganymede’s, means that Callisto does not take part in the mean-motion resonance that Io, Europa and Ganymede do.

Much like the other Galileans, Callisto’s rotation is synchronous with its orbit. This means that it takes the same amount of time (16.689 days) for Callisto to complete a single orbit of Jupiter and a single rotation on its axis. Its orbit is very slightly eccentric and inclined to the Jovian equator, with the eccentricity and inclination changing over the course of centuries due to solar and planetary gravitational perturbations.

Size comparison of Earth, Moon and Callisto. Credit: NASA/JPL/DLR/Gregory H. Revera
Size comparison of Earth, Moon and Callisto. Credit: NASA/JPL/DLR/Gregory H. Revera

Unlike the other Galileans, Callisto’s distant orbit means that it has never experienced much in the way of tidal-heating, which has had a profound impact on its internal structure and evolution. Its distance from Jupiter also means that the charged particles from Jupiter’s magnetosphere have had a very minor influence on its surface.

Composition and Surface Features:

The average density of Callisto, at 1.83 g/cm3, suggests a composition of approximately equal parts of rocky material and water ice, with some additional volatile ices such as ammonia. Ice is believed to constitute 49-55% of the moon, with the rock component likely made up of chondrites, silicates and iron oxide.

Callisto’s surface composition is thought to be similar to its composition as a whole, with water ice constituting 25-50% of its overall mass. High-resolution, near-infrared and UV spectra imaging have revealed the presence of various non-ice materials, such as magnesium and iron-bearing hydrated silicates, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and possibly ammonia and various organic compounds.

Model of Callisto's internal structure showing a surface ice layer, a possible liquid water layer, and an ice–rock interior. Credit: NASA/JPL
Model of Callisto’s internal structure showing a surface ice layer, a possible liquid water layer, and an ice–rock interior. Credit: NASA/JPL

Beneath the surface is an icy lithosphere that is between 80-150 m thick. A salty ocean 50–200 km deep is believed to exist beneath this, thanks to the presence of radioactive elements and the possible existence of ammonia. Evidence of this ocean include Jupiter’s magnetic field, which shows no signs of penetrating Callisto’s surface. This suggests a layer of highly conductive fluid that is at least 10 km in depth. However, if this water contains ammonia, which is more likely, than it could be up to 250-300 km.

Beneath this hypothetical ocean, Callisto’s interior appears to be composed of compressed rocks and ices, with the amount of rock increasing with depth. This means, in effect, that Callisto is only partially differentiated, with a small silicate core no larger than 600 km (and a density of 3.1-3.6 g/cm³) surrounded by a mix of ice and rock.

Spectral data has also indicated that Callisto’s surface is extremely heterogeneous at the small scale. Basically, the surface consists of small, bright patches of pure water ice, intermixed with patches of a rock–ice mixture, and extended dark areas made of a non-ice material.

Compared to the other Galilean Moons, Callisto’s surface is quite dark, with a surface albedo of about 20%. Another difference is the nature of its asymmetric appearance. Whereas with the other Galileans, the leading hemisphere is lighter than the trailing one, with Callisto the opposite is true.

Interior density structures created by an outer solar system late heavy bombardment onto Ganymede (top row) and Callisto (bottom row). Credit: SwRI
Interior density structures created by an outer solar system late heavy bombardment onto Ganymede (top row) and Callisto (bottom row). Credit: SwRI

An immediately obvious feature about Callisto’s surface is the ancient and heavily cratered nature of it. In fact, the surface is the most cratered in the Solar System and is almost entirely saturated by craters, with newer ones having formed over older ones. What’s more, impact craters and their associated structures are the only large features on the surface. There are no mountains, volcanoes or other endogenic tectonic features.

Callisto’s impact craters range in size from 0.1 km to over 100 km, not counting the multi-ring structures. Small craters, with diameters less than 5 km, have simple bowl or flat-floored shapes, whereas those that measure 5–40 km usually have a central peak.

Larger impact features, with diameters that range from 25–100 km have central pits instead of peaks. Those with diameters over 60 km can have central domes, which are thought to result from central tectonic uplift after an impact.

The largest impact features on Callisto’s surface are multi-ring basins, which probably originated as a result of post-impact concentric fracturing which took place over a patch of lithosphere that overlay a section of soft or liquid material (possibly a patch of the interior ocean). The largest of these are Valhalla and Asgard, whose central, bright regions measure 600 and 1600 km in diameter (respectively) with rings extending farther outwards.

Voyager 1 image of Valhalla, a multi-ring impact structure 3800 km in diameter. Credit: NASA/JPL
Voyager 1 image of Valhalla, a multi-ring impact structure 3800 km in diameter. Credit: NASA/JPL

The relative ages of the different surface units on Callisto can be determined from the density of impact craters on them – the older the surface, the denser the crater population. Based on theoretical considerations, the cratered plains are thought to be ~4.5 billion years old, dating back almost to the formation of the Solar System.

The ages of multi-ring structures and impact craters depend on chosen background cratering rates, and are estimated by different researchers to vary between 1 and 4 billion years of age.

Atmosphere:

Callisto has a very tenuous atmosphere composed of carbon dioxide which has an estimated surface pressure of 7.5  × 10-¹² bar (0.75 micro Pascals) and a particle density of 4 × 108 cm-3. Because such a thin atmosphere would be lost in only about 4 days, it must be constantly replenished, possibly by slow sublimation of carbon dioxide ice from Callisto’s icy crust.

While it has not been directly detected, it is believed that molecular oxygen exists in concentrations 10-100 times greater than CO². This is evidenced by the high electron density of the planet’s ionosphere, which cannot be explained by the photoionization of carbon dioxide alone. However, condensed oxygen has been detected on the surface of Callisto, trapped within its icy crust.

Habitability:

Much like Europa and Ganymede, and Saturn’s moons of Enceladus, Mimas, Dione, Titan, the possible existence of a subsurface ocean on Callisto has led many scientists to speculate about the possibility of life. This is particularly likely if the interior ocean is made up of salt-water, since halophiles (which thrive in high salt concentrations) could live there.

In addition, the possibility of extra-terrestrial microbial life has also been raised with respect to Callisto. However, the environmental conditions necessary for life to appear (which include the presence of sufficient heat due to tidal flexing) are more likely on Europa and Ganymede. The main difference is the lack of contact between the rocky material and the interior ocean, as well as the lower heat flux in Callisto’s interior.

In essence, while Callisto possesses the necessary pre-biotic chemistry to host life, it lacks the necessary energy. Because of this, the most likely candidate for the existence of extra-terrestrial life in Jupiter’s system of moons remains Europa.

Exploration:

The first exploration missions to Callisto were the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecrafts, which conducted flybys of the Galilean moon in 1973 and 1974, respectively, But these missions provided little additional information beyond what had already learned through Earth-based observations. In contrast, the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft, which conducted flybys of the moon in 1979, managed to image more than half the surface and precisely measured Callisto’s temperature, mass and shape.

Capturing Callisto
New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) captured these two images of Jupiter’s outermost large moon, Callisto, during its flyby in February 2007. Credit: NASA/JPL

Further exploration took place between 1994 and 2003, when the Galileo spacecraft performed eight close flybys with Callisto. The orbiter completed the global imaging of the surface and delivered a number of pictures with a resolution as high as 15 meters. In 2000, while en route to Saturn, the Cassini spacecraft acquired high-quality infrared spectra of the Galilean satellites, including Callisto.

In February–March 2007, while en route to Pluto, the New Horizons probe obtained new images and spectra of Callisto. Using its Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array (LEISA) instrument, the probe was able to reveal how lighting and viewing conditions affect infrared spectrum readings of its surface water ice.

The next planned mission to the Jovian system is the European Space Agency’s Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer (JUICE), due to launch in 2022. Ostensibly geared towards exploring Europa and Ganymede, the mission profile also includes several close flybys of Callisto.

Colonization:

Compared to the other Galileans, Callisto presents numerous advantages as far as colonization is concerned. Much like the others, the moon has an abundant supply of water in the form of surface ice (but also possibly liquid water beneath the surface). But unlike the others, Callisto’s distance from Jupiter means that colonists would have far less to worry about in terms of radiation.

In 2003, NASA conducted a conceptual study called Human Outer Planets Exploration (HOPE) regarding the future human exploration of the outer Solar System. The target chosen to consider in detail was Callisto, for the purposes of investigating the possible existence of life forms embedded in the ice crust on this moon and on Europa.

Artist's impression of a base on Callisto. Credit: NASA
Artist’s impression of a base on the icy surface of Callisto. Credit: NASA

The study proposed a possible surface base on Callisto where a crew could “teleoperate a Europa submarine and excavate Callisto surface samples near the impact site”. In addition, this base could extract water from Callisto’s ample supply of water ices to produce rocket propellant for further exploration of the Solar System.

The advantages of a base on Callisto include low radiation (due to its distance from Jupiter) and geological stability. Such a base could facilitate exploration on other Galilean Moons, and be an ideal location for a Jovian system way station, servicing spacecraft heading farther into the outer Solar System – which would likely take the form of craft using a gravity assist from a close flyby of Jupiter.

Reports filed by NASA’s Glenn Research Center and Langley Research Center – in December and February of 2003, respectively – both outlined possible manned missions to Callisto, as envisioned by HOPE. According to these reports, a mission that would likely involve a ship using a Mangetoplasmadynamic (MPD) or Nuclear-Electric Propulsion (NEP) drive system, and equipped to generate artificial gravity, could be mounted in the 2040s.

So while Callisto may not be the best target in the search for extra-terrestrial life, it may be the most hospitable of Jupiter’s moons for human life. In either case, any future missions to Jupiter will likely include a stopovers to Callisto, with the intent of investigating both of these possibilities.

We have many great articles on Callisto, Jupiter, and its system of moons here at Universe Today. Here’s one about how impacts effected Callisto’s interior, And here is one on all of the Galilean Moons.

For more information, check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration page on Callisto.

Astronomy Cast offers has a good episode on the subject, titled Episode 57: Jupiter’s Moons.