Shining like a beacon in Earth’s sky is the Moon. We’ve seen so much of it in our lifetimes that it’s easy to take it for granted; even the human landings on the Moon in the 1960s and 1970s were eventually taken for granted by the public.
Fortunately for science, we haven’t stopped looking at the Moon in the decades after Neil Armstrong took his first step. Here are a few things to consider about Earth’s closest big neighbor.
New Horizons, you gotta wake up this weekend. There’s so much work ahead of you when you reach Pluto next year! The spacecraft has been sleeping quietly for weeks in its last great hibernation before the dwarf planet close encounter in July. On Saturday (Dec. 6), the NASA craft will open its eyes and begin preparations for that flyby.
How cool will those closeups of Pluto and its moons look? A hint comes from a swing New Horizons took by Jupiter in 2007 en route. It caught a huge volcanic plume erupting off of the moon Io, picked up new details in Jupiter’s atmosphere and gave scientists a close-up of a mysterious “Little Red Spot.” Get a taste of the fun seven years ago in the gallery below.
It takes years of painstaking work to get a spacecraft off the ground. So when you have a spacecraft like JUICE (the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer) set to launch in 2022, you need to back up about a decade to get things figured out. How will the spacecraft get there? What science instruments will it carry? What will the spacecraft look like and what systems will support its work?
JUICE just hit another milestone in its development a few days ago, when the European Space Agency gave the go-ahead for the “implementation phase” — the part where the spacecraft design begins to take shape. The major goal of the mission will be to better understand those moons around Jupiter that could be host to life.
The spacecraft will reach Jupiter’s system in 2030 and begin with observations of the mighty planet — the biggest in our Solar System — to learn more about the gas giant’s atmosphere, faint rings and magnetic environment. It also will be responsible for teaching us more about Europa (an icy world that could host a global ocean) and Callisto (a moon pockmarked with the most craters of anything in the Solar System.)
Its major departure from past missions, though, will come when JUICE enters orbit around Ganymede. This will the first time any spacecraft has circled an icy moon repeatedly; past views of the moon have only come through flybys by the passing-through spacecraft (such as Pioneer and Voyager) and the Galileo mission, which stuck around Jupiter’s system in the 1990s and early 2000s.
With Ganymede, another moon thought to host a global ocean, JUICE will examine its surface and insides. What makes the moon unique in our neighborhood is its ability to create its own magnetic field, which creates interesting effects when it interacts with Jupiter’s intense magnetic environment.
“Jupiter’s diverse Galilean moons – volcanic Io, icy Europa and rock-ice Ganymede and Callisto – make the Jovian system a miniature Solar System in its own right,” the European Space Agency stated when the mission was selected in 2012.
“With Europa, Ganymede and Callisto all thought to host internal oceans, the mission will study the moons as potential habitats for life, addressing two key themes of cosmic vision: what are the conditions for planet formation and the emergence of life, and how does the Solar System work?”
The original observations (top) and interpretations (bottom) of the first ever amateur albedo map of Ganymede. Credit: Manos Kardasis.
As our frequent “Astrophoto” posts from amateur astronomers and photographers attest – as well as the rise of citizen science — , the latest technology allows amatuers to make significant contributions to the field of astronomy. Case in point: Emmanuel I. Kardasis of the Hellenic Amateur Astronomy Association has produced the first amateur albedo map of Jupiter’s moon Ganymede. He used an off-the-shelf telescope, camera and computer equipment, but put his experienced observing skills to the test.
“Ganymede has a tiny disk as seen from Earth so was a good test for my techniques,” said Kardasis. “If the same methods were applied to other worlds, perhaps the volcanic moon Io, we could capture surface fluctuations. Professional observatories may create better images but they cannot monitor our rapidly and ever-changing Universe.”
Albedo maps of Ganymede (left) and how they relate to known surface features (right). Credit: Manos Kardasis.
Like many amateurs, Kardasis attached a camera to his telescope and recorded a video of Ganymede. Selecting only the sharpest frames of the video allowed him to obtain a series of images when the atmospheric conditions – known as ‘seeing’ – were most favorable. These best images were then stacked and aligned, before being enhanced through photo-editing software.
An albedo map details higher areas of reflectivity on an object’s surface recording where material is brighter or darker. Kardasis’ albedo map closely aligns with professional images of Ganymede’s surface, indicating features such as Phrygia Sulcus (furrows and ridges 3,700 km across) and the Nicholson region (a low-lying darker area).
Amateur photographs of Jupiter and Ganymede, accompanied with a professionally-obtained labeled map (bottom right). Credit: Manos Kardasis.
“Creating useful images of planets requires a telescope with a diameter of at least eight inches, said Kardasis. “For tiny discs, such as the moons of Jupiter, bigger is definitely better. My Ganymede images were made using an 11-inch telescope. You also need a good motor drive on your tripod, a sensitive camera, some freely-available software, and lots of patience!”
Kardasis presented his images at the European Planetary Science Congress this week in Madrid, Spain. He suggests that future amateur programs could monitor both surface and atmospheric changes on worlds as varied as Uranus, Neptune and Titan, complementing more detailed but far less regular observations made by professionals. Kardasis says, “I hope my work will inspire anyone interested in astronomy to use whatever equipment they have to make useful observations.”
The European Space Agency has given the go-ahead for an exciting mission to explore the icy moons of Jupiter, as well as the giant planet itself.
JUICE — JUpiter ICy moons Explorer — will consist of a solar-powered spacecraft that will spend 3.5 years within the Jovian system, investigating Ganymede, Europa and the upper atmosphere of Jupiter. Anticipated to launch in June 2022, JUICE would arrive at Jupiter in early 2030.
As its name implies, JUICE’s main targets are Jupiter’s largest icy moons — Ganymede and Europa — which are thought to have liquid oceans concealed beneath their frozen surfaces.
The largest moon in the Solar System, Ganymede is also thought to have a molten iron core generating a magnetic field much like Earth’s. The internal heat from this core may help keep Ganymede’s underground ocean liquid, but the dynamics of how it all works are not quite understood.
JUICE will also study the ice-coated Europa, whose cueball-smooth surface lined with cracks and jumbled mounds of frozen material seem to be sure indicators of a subsurface ocean, although how deep and how extensive is might be are still unknown — not to mention its composition and whether or not it could be hospitable to life.
“JUICE will give us better insight into how gas giants and their orbiting worlds form, and their potential for hosting life,” said Professor Alvaro Giménez Cañete, ESA’s Director of Science and Robotic Exploration.
The JUICE spacecraft was originally supposed to join a NASA mission dedicated to the investigation of Europa, but NASA deemed their proposed mission too costly and it was cancelled. According to Robert Pappalardo, study scientist for the Europa mission based at JPL, NASA may still supply some instruments for the spacecraft “assuming that the funding situation in the United States can bear it.”
JUICE will also capture images of Jupiter’s moon Callisto and search for aurorae in the gas giant’s upper atmosphere, as well as measure the planet’s powerful magnetic field. Once arriving in 2030, it will spend at least three years exploring the Jovian worlds.
Read more in today’s news release from Nature, and stay tuned to ESA’s JUICE mission page here.
Jupiter’s two moons Ganymede and Callisto could be considered fraternal twins. They have a similar composition and size, but visually, they are different. Also, data from the Galileo and Voyager spacecraft reveal the two moons’ interiors are very dissimilar, as well. The reasons for the differences have eluded scientists for 30 years, but a new study provides an explanation. During the Late Heavy Bombardment, Callisto escaped relatively unscathed, while Ganymede was a battered child; so much so that the later moon melted. “Impacts during this period melted Ganymede so thoroughly and deeply that the heat could not be quickly removed,” said Dr. Amy Barr of the Southwest Research Institute. “All of Ganymede’s rock sank to its center the same way that all the chocolate chips sink to the bottom of a melted carton of ice cream. Callisto received fewer impacts at lower velocities and avoided complete melting.”
Barr and and Dr. Robin Canup created a model showing how Jupiter’s strong gravity focused cometary impactors onto Ganymede and Callisto 3.8 billion years ago, during the LHB period. Each impact onto Ganymede or Callisto’s mixed ice and rock surface creates a pool of liquid water, allowing rock in the melt pool to sink to the moon’s center.
But Ganymede is closer to Jupiter and therefore was hit by twice as many icy impactors as Callisto. Additionally, the impactors hitting Ganymede had a higher average velocity. Modeling by Barr and Canup shows that core formation begun during the late heavy bombardment becomes energetically self-sustaining in Ganymede but not Callisto.
Watch a movie that shows the effect of an outer solar system late heavy bombardment on the interior structure of Callisto (top model in the movie) and Ganymede (bottom).
“Similar to Earth and Venus, Ganymede and Callisto are twins, and understanding how they were born the same and grew up to be so different is of tremendous interest to planetary scientists,” explains Barr. “Our study shows that Ganymede and Callisto record the fingerprints of the early evolution of the solar system, which is very exciting and not at all expected.”
The “Ganymede-Callisto dichotomy,” has been a classical problem in comparative planetology, a field of study that seeks to explain why some solar system objects with similar bulk characteristics have radically different appearances. The study by Barr and Canup also links the evolution of Jupiter’s moons to the orbital migration of the outer planets and the bombardment history of Earth’s moon.