The Definitive Guide To Terraforming

Artist's impression of the terraforming of Mars, from its current state to a livable world. Credit: Daein Ballard

Terraforming. Chances are you’ve heard that word thrown around before, most likely in the context of some science fiction story. However, in recent years, thanks to renewed interest in space exploration, this word is being used in an increasingly serious manner. And rather than being talked about like a far-off prospect, the issue of terraforming other worlds is being addressed as a near-future possibility.

Whether it’s Elon Musk claiming that humanity needs a “backup location” in order to survive, private ventures like MarsOne looking to send humans on a one-way mission to colonize the Red Planet, or space agencies like NASA and the ESA discussing the prospect of long-term habitability on Mars or the Moon, terraforming is yet another science fiction concept that appears to be moving towards science fact.

But just what does terraforming entail? Where exactly could we go about using this process? What kind of technology would we need? Does such technology already exist, or do we have to wait? How much in the way of resources would it take? And above all, what are the odds of it actually succeeding? Answering any or all of these questions requires that we do a bit of digging. Not only is terraforming a time-honored concept, but as it turns out, humanity already has quite a bit of experience in this area!

Origin Of The Term:

To break it down, terraforming is the process whereby a hostile environment (i.e. a planet that is too cold, too hot, and/or has an unbreathable atmosphere) is altered in order to be suitable for human life. This could involve modifying the temperature, atmosphere, surface topography, ecology – or all of the above – in order to make a planet or moon more “Earth-like”.

Venus is also considered a prime candidate for terraforming. Credit: NASA/JPL/
Venus is considered by many to be a prime candidate for terraforming. Credit: NASA/JPL/

The term was coined by Jack Williamson, an American science fiction writer who has also been called “the Dean of science fiction” (after the death of Robert Heinlein in 1988). The term appeared as part of a science-fiction story titled “Collision Orbit”, which was published in the 1942 editions of the magazine Astounding Science Fiction. This is the first known mention of the concept, though there are examples of it appearing in fiction beforehand.

Terraforming in Fiction:

Science fiction is filled with examples of altering planetary environments to be more suitable to human life, many of which predate the scientific studies by many decades. For example, in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, he mentions at one point how the Martian invaders begin transforming Earth’s ecology for the sake of long-term habitation.

In Olaf Stapleton’s Last And First Men (1930), two chapter are dedicated to describing how humanity’s descendants terraform Venus after Earth becomes uninhabitable; and in the process, commit genocide against the native aquatic life. By the 1950s and 60s, owing to the beginning of the Space Age, terraforming began to appear in works of science fiction with increasing frequency.

One such example is Farmer in the Sky (1950) by Robert A. Heinlein. In this novel, Heinlein offers a vision of Jupiter’s moon Ganymede, which is being transformed into an agricultural settlement. This was a very significant work, in that it was the first where the concept of terraforming is presented as a serious and scientific matter, rather than the subject of mere fantasy.

. Credit: Metro-.Goldwyn-Mayer
Scene from 2010: The Year We Make Contact, the movie adaptation of Clarke’s novel. Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

In 1951, Arthur C. Clarke wrote the first novel in which the terraforming of Mars was presented in fiction. Titled The Sands of Mars, the story involves Martian settlers heating up the planet by converting Mars’ moon Phobos into a second sun, and growing plants that break down the Martians sands in order to release oxygen. In his seminal book 2001: A Space Odyssey – and it’s sequel, 2010: Odyssey Two – Clarke presents a race of ancient beings (“Firstborn”) turning Jupiter into a second sun so that Europa will become a life-bearing planet.

Poul Anderson also wrote extensively about terraforming in the 1950s. In his 1954 novel, The Big Rain, Venus is altered through planetary engineering techniques over a very long period of time. The book was so influential that the term term “Big Rain” has since come to be synonimous with the terraforming of Venus.  This was followed in 1958 by the Snows of Ganymede, where the Jovian moon’s ecology is made habitable through a similar process.

In Issac Asimov’s Robot series, colonization and terraforming is performed by a powerful race of humans known as “Spacers”, who conduct this process on fifty planets in the known universe.  In his Foundation series, humanity has effectively colonized every habitable planet in the galaxy and terraformed them to become part of the Galactic Empire.

In 1984, James Lovelock and Michael Allaby wrote what is considered by many to be one of the most influential books on terraforming. Titled The Greening of Mars, the novel explores the formation and evolution of planets, the origin of life, and Earth’s biosphere. The terraforming models presented in the book actually foreshadowed future debates regarding the goals of terraforming.

Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars Trilogy. Credit:
Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars Trilogy. Credit:

In the 1990s, Kim Stanley Robinson released his famous trilogy that deals with the terraforming of Mars. Known as the Mars TrilogyRed Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars – this series centers on the transformation of Mars over the course of many generations into a thriving human civilization. This was followed up in 2012 with the release of 2312, which deals with the colonization of the Solar System – including the terraforming of Venus and other planets.

Countless other examples can be found in popular culture, ranging from television and print to films and video games.

Study of Terraforming:

In an article published by the journal Science in 1961, famed astronomer Carl Sagan proposed using planetary engineering techniques to transform Venus. This involved seeding the atmosphere of Venus with algae, which would convert the atmosphere’s ample supplies of water, nitrogen and carbon dioxide into organic compounds and reduce Venus’ runaway greenhouse effect.

In 1973, he published an article in the journal Icarus titled “Planetary Engineering on Mars“, where he proposed two scenarios for transforming Mars. These included transporting low albedo material and/or planting dark plants on the polar ice caps to ensure it absorbed more heat, melted, and converted the planet to more “Earth-like conditions”.

In 1976, NASA addressed the issue of planetary engineering officially in a study titled “On the Habitability of Mars: An Approach to Planetary Ecosynthesis“. The study concluded that photosynthetic organisms, the melting of the polar ice caps, and the introduction of greenhouse gases could all be used to create a warmer, oxygen and ozone-rich atmosphere. The first conference session on terraforming, then referred to as “Planetary Modeling”, was organized that same year.

Living Mars. Credit: Kevin Gill
Artist concept of a ‘Living’ Mars. Credit: Kevin Gill

And then in March of 1979, NASA engineer and author James Oberg organized the First Terraforming Colloquium – a special session at the Tenth Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, which is held annually in Houston, Texas. In 1981, Oberg popularized the concepts that were discussed at the colloquium in his book New Earths: Restructuring Earth and Other Planets.

In 1982, Planetologist Christopher McKay wrote “Terraforming Mars”, a paper for the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society. In it, McKay discussed the prospects of a self-regulating Martian biosphere, which included both the required methods for doing so and ethics of it. This was the first time that the word terraforming was used in the title of a published article, and would henceforth become the preferred term.

This was followed by James Lovelock and Michael Allaby’s The Greening of Mars in 1984. This book was one of the first to describe a novel method of warming Mars, where chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are added to the atmosphere in order to trigger global warming. This book motivated biophysicist Robert Haynes to begin promoting terraforming as part of a larger concept known as Ecopoiesis.

Derived from the Greek words oikos (“house”) and poiesis (“production”), this word refers to the origin of an ecosystem. In the context of space exploration, it involves a form of planetary engineering where a sustainable ecosystem is fabricated from an otherwise sterile planet. As described by Haynes, this begins with the seeding of a planet with microbial life, which leads to conditions approaching that of a primordial Earth. This is then followed by the importation of plant life, which accelerates the production of oxygen, and culminates in the introduction of animal life.

An engineer suggests building a roof over a small planet so that Earthlike conditions could be maintained. Credit: by Karl Tate, Infographics Artist - See more at:
An engineer suggests building a roof over a small planet so that Earthlike conditions could be maintained. Credit: Karl Tate/

In 2009, Kenneth Roy – an engineer with the US Department of Energy – presented his concept for a “Shell World” in a paper published with the Journal of British Interplanetary Sciences. Titled “Shell Worlds – An Approach To Terraforming Moons, Small Planets and Plutoids“, his paper explored the possibility of using a large “shell” to encase an alien world, keeping its atmosphere contained long enough for long-term changes to take root.

There is also the concepts where a usable part of a planet is enclosed in an dome in order to transform its environment, which is known as “paraterraforming”. This concept, originally coined by British mathematician Richard L.S. Talyor in his 1992 publication Paraterraforming – The worldhouse concept, could be used to terraform sections of several planets that are otherwise inhospitable, or cannot be altered in whole.

Potential Sites:

Within the Solar System, several possible locations exist that could be well-suited to terraforming. Consider the fact that besides Earth, Venus and Mars also lie within the Sun’s Habitable Zone (aka. “Goldilocks Zone”). However, owing to Venus’ runaway greenhouse effect, and Mars’ lack of a magnetosphere, their atmospheres are either too thick and hot, or too thin and cold, to sustain life as we know it. However, this could theoretically be altered through the right kind of ecological engineering.

Other potential sites in the Solar System include some of the moons that orbit the gas giants. Several Jovian (i.e. in orbit of Jupiter) and Cronian (in orbit of Saturn) moons have an abundance of water ice, and scientists have speculated that if the surface temperatures were increased, viable atmospheres could be created through electrolysis and the introduction of buffer gases.

Artist's conception of a terraformed Mars. Credit: Ittiz/Wikimedia Commons
Artist’s conception of a terraformed Mars. Credit: Ittiz/Wikimedia Commons

There is even speculation that Mercury and the Moon (or at least parts thereof) could be terraformed in order to be suitable for human settlement. In these cases, terraforming would require not only altering the surface, but perhaps also adjusting their rotation. In the end, each case presents its own share of advantages, challenges, and likelihoods for success. Let’s consider them in order of distance from the Sun.

Inner Solar System:

The terrestrial planets of our Solar System present the best possibilities for terraforming. Not only are they located closer to our Sun, and thus in a better position to absorb its energy, but they are also rich in silicates and minerals – which any future colonies will need to grow food and build settlements. And as already mentioned, two of these planets (Venus and Mars) are located within Earth’s habitable zone.

The vast majority of Mercury’s surface is hostile to life, where temperatures gravitate between extremely hot and cold – i.e. 700 K (427 °C; 800 °F) 100 K (-173 °C; -280 °F). This is due to its proximity to the Sun, the almost total lack of an atmosphere, and its very slow rotation. However, at the poles, temperatures are consistently low -93 °C (-135 °F) due to it being permanently shadowed.

Images of Mercury's northern polar region, provided by MESSENGER. Credit: NASA/JPL
Images of Mercury’s northern polar region, provided by MESSENGER. Credit: NASA/JPL

The presence of water ice and organic molecules in the northern polar region has also been confirmed thanks to data obtained by the MESSENGER mission. Colonies could therefore be constructed in the regions, and limited terraforming (aka. paraterraforming) could take place. For example, if domes (or a single dome) of sufficient size could be built over the Kandinsky, Prokofiev, Tolkien and Tryggvadottir craters, the norther region could be altered for human habitation.

Theoretically, this could be done by using mirrors to redirect sunlight into the domes which would gradually raise the temperature. The water ice would then melt, and when combined with organic molecules and finely ground sand, soil could be made. Plants could then be grown to produce oxygen, which combined with nitrogen gas, would produce a breathable atmosphere.

As “Earth’s Twin“, there are many possibilities and advantages to terraforming Venus. The first to propose this was Sagan with his 1961 article in Science. However, subsequent discoveries – such as the high concentrations of sulfuric acid in Venus’ clouds – made this idea unfeasible. Even if algae could survive in such an atmosphere, converting the extremely dense clouds of CO² into oxygen would result in an over-dense oxygen environment.

In addition, graphite would become a by-product of the chemical reactions, which would likely form into a thick powder on the surface. This would become CO² again through combustion, thus restarting the entire greenhouse effect. However, more recent proposals have been made that advocate using carbon sequestration techniques, which are arguably much more practical.

In these scenarios, chemical reactions would be relied on to convert Venus’ atmosphere to something breathable while also reducing its density. In one scenario, hydrogen and iron aerosol would be introduced to convert the CO² in the atmosphere into graphite and water. This water would then fall to the surface, where it cover roughly 80% of the planet – due to Venus having little variation in elevation.

Another scenario calls for the introduction of vast amounts of calcium and magnesium into the atmosphere. This would sequester carbon in the form of calcium and magnesium carbonites. And advantage to this plan is that Venus already has deposits of both minerals in its mantle, which could then be exposed to the atmosphere through drilling. However, most of the minerals would have to come from off-world in order to reduce the temperature and pressure to sustainable levels.

Yet another proposal is to freeze the atmospheric carbon dioxide down to the point of liquefaction – where it forms dry ice – and letting it accumulate on the surface. Once there, it could be buried and would remain in a solid state due to pressure, and even mined for local and off-world use. And then there is the possibility of bombarding the surface with icy comets (which could be mined from one of Jupiter’s or Saturn’s moons) to create a liquid ocean on the surface, which would sequester carbon and aid in any other of the above processes.

Last, there is the scenario in which Venus’ dense atmosphere could be removed. This could be characterized as the most direct approach to thinning an atmosphere which is far too dense for human occupation. By colliding large comets or asteroids into the surface, some of the dense CO² clouds could be blasted into space, thus leaving less atmosphere to be converted.

Artist's conception of a terraformed Venus, showing a surface largely covered in oceans. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Ittiz
Artist’s conception of a terraformed Venus, showing a surface largely covered in oceans. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Ittiz

A slower method could be achieved using mass drivers (aka. electromagnetic catapults) or space elevators, which would gradually scoop up the atmosphere and either lift it into space, or fire it away from the surface. And beyond altering or removing the atmosphere, there are also concepts that call for reducing the heat and pressure by either limiting sunlight (i.e. with solar shades) or altering the planet’s rotational velocity.

The concept of solar shades involves using either a series of small spacecraft or a single large lens to divert sunlight from a planet’s surface, thus reducing global temperatures. For Venus, which absorbs twice as much sunlight as Earth, solar radiation is believed to have played a major role in the runaway greenhouse effect that has made it what it is today.

Such a shade could be space-based, located in the Sun–Venus L1 Lagrangian Point, where it would not only prevent some sunlight from reaching Venus, but also serve to reduce the amount of radiation Venus is exposed to. Alternately, solar shades or reflectors could be placed in the atmosphere or on the surface. This could consist of large reflective balloons, sheets of carbon nanotubes or graphene, or low-albedo material.

Placing shades or reflectors in the atmosphere offers two advantages: for one, atmospheric reflectors could be built in-situ, using locally-sourced carbon. Second, Venus’ atmosphere is dense enough that such structures could easily float atop the clouds. However, the amount of material would have to be large and would have to remain in place long after the atmosphere had been modified. Also, since Venus already has highly reflective clouds, any approach would have to significantly surpass its current albedo (0.65) to make a difference.

Solar shades placed in orbit of Venus are a possible means of terraforming the planet. Credit: IEEE Spectrum/John MacNeill
Solar shades placed in orbit of Venus are a possible means of terraforming the planet. Credit: IEEE Spectrum/John MacNeill

Also, the idea of speeding up Venus’ rotation has been floating around as a possible means of terraforming. If Venus could be spun-up to the point where its diurnal (day-night) cycle were similar to Earth’s, the planet might just begin to generate a stronger magnetic field. This would have the effect of reducing the amount of solar wind (and hence radiation) from reaching the surface, thus making it safer for terrestrial organisms.

The Moon:
As Earth’s closest celestial body, colonizing the Moon would be comparatively easy compared to other bodies. But when it comes to terraforming the Moon, the possibilities and challenges closely resemble those of Mercury. For starters, the Moon has an atmosphere that is so thin that it can only be referred to as an exosphere. What’s more, the volatile elements that are necessary for life are in short supply (i.e. hydrogen, nitrogen, and carbon).

These problems could be addressed by capturing comets that contain water ices and volatiles and crashing them into the surface. The comets would sublimate, dispersing these gases and water vapor to create an the atmosphere. These impacts would also liberate water that is contained in the lunar regolith, which could eventually accumulate on the surface to form natural bodies of water.

The transfer of momentum from these comet would also get the Moon rotating more rapidly, speeding up its rotation so that it would no longer be tidally-locked. A Moon that was sped up to rotate once on its axis every 24 hours would have a steady diurnal cycle, which would make colonization and adapting to life on the Moon easier.

There is also the possibility of paraterraforming parts of the Moon in a way that would be similar to terraforming Mercury’s polar region. In the Moon’s case, this would take place in the Shackleton Crater, where scientists have already found evidence of water ice. Using solar mirrors and a dome, this crater could be turned into a micro-climate where plants could be grown and a breathable atmosphere created.

When it comes to terraforming, Mars is the most popular destination. There are several reasons for this, ranging from its proximity to Earth, its similarities to Earth, and the fact that it once had an environment that was very similar to Earth’s – which included a thicker atmosphere and the presence of warm, flowing water on the surface. Lastly, it is currently believed that Mars may have additional sources of water beneath its surface.

In brief, Mars has a diurnal and seasonal cycle that are very close what we experience here on Earth. In the former case, a single day on Mars lasts 24 hours and 40 minutes. In the latter case, and owing to Mars similarly tilted axis (25.19° compared to Earth’s 23°), Mars experiences seasonal changes that are very similar to Earth’s. Though a single season on Mars lasts roughly twice as long, the temperature variation that results is very similar – ±178 °C (320°F) compared to Earth’s ±160 °C (278°F).

Beyond these, Mars would need to undergo vast transformations in order for human beings to live on its surface. The atmosphere would need to be thickened drastically, and its composition would need to be changed. Currently, Mars’ atmosphere is composed of 96% carbon dioxide, 1.93% argon and 1.89% nitrogen, and the air pressure is equivalent to only 1% of Earth’s at sea level.

Above all, Mars lacks a magnetosphere, which means that its surface receives significantly more radiation than we are used to here on Earth. In addition, it is believed that Mars once had a magnetosphere, and that the disappearance of this magnetic field led to solar wind to stripping away Mars’ atmosphere. This in turn is what led Mars to become the cold, desiccated place it is today.

Scientists were able to gauge the rate of water loss on Mars by measuring the ratio of water and HDO from today and 4.3 billion years ago. Credit: Kevin Gill
Scientists were able to gauge the rate of water loss on Mars by measuring the ratio of water and HDO from today and 4.3 billion years ago. Credit: Kevin Gill

Ultimately, this means that in order for the planet to become habitable by human standards, it’s atmosphere would need to be significantly thickened and the planet significantly warmed. The composition of the atmosphere would need to change as well, from the current CO²-heavy mix to an nitrogen-oxygen balance of about 70/30. And above all, the atmosphere would need to be replenished every so often to compensate for loss.

Luckily, the first three requirements are largely complimentary, and present a wide range of possible solutions. For starters, Mars’ atmosphere could be thickened and the planet warmed by bombarding its polar regions with meteors. These would cause the poles to melt, releasing their deposits of frozen carbon dioxide and water into the atmosphere and triggering a greenhouse effect.

The introduction of volatile elements, such as ammonia and methane, would also help to thicken the atmosphere and trigger warming. Both could be mined from the icy moons of the outer Solar System, particularly from the moons of Ganymede, Callisto, and Titan. These could also be delivered to the surface via meteoric impacts.

After impacting on the surface, the ammonia ice would sublimate and break down into hydrogen and nitrogen – the hydrogen interacting with he CO² to form water and graphite, while the nitrogen acts as a buffer gas. The methane, meanwhile, would act as a greenhouse gas that would further enhance global warming. In addition, the impacts would throw tons of dust into the air, further fueling the warming trend.

In time, Mars’ ample supplies of water ice – which can be found not only in the poles but in vast subsurface deposits of permafrost – would all sublimate to form warm, flowing water. And with significantly increased air pressure and a warmer atmosphere, humans might be able to venture out onto the surface without the need for pressure suits.

However, the atmosphere will still need to be converted into something breathable. This will be far more time-consuming, as the process of converting the atmospheric CO² into oxygen gas will likely take centuries. In any case, several possibilities have been suggested, which include converting the atmosphere through photosynthesis – either with cyanobacteria or Earth plants and lichens.

Other suggestions include building orbital mirrors, which would be placed near the poles and direct sunlight onto the surface to trigger a cycle of warming by causing the polar ice caps to melt and release their CO² gas. Using dark dust from Phobos and Deimos to reduce the surface’s albedo, thus allowing it to absorb more sunlight, has also been suggested.

In short, there are plenty of options for terraforming Mars. And many of them, if not being readily available, are at least on the table…

Outer Solar System:

Beyond the Inner Solar System, there are several sites that would make for good terraforming targets as well. Particularly around Jupiter and Saturn, there are several sizable moons – some of which are larger than Mercury – that have an abundance of water in the form of ice (and in some cases, maybe even interior oceans).

The moons of the Solar System, shown to scale. Credit:
The moons of the Solar System, shown to scale. Credit:

At the same time, many of these same moons contain other necessary ingredients for functioning ecosystems, such as frozen volatiles  – like ammonia and methane. Because of this, and as part of our ongoing desire to explore farther out into our Solar System, many proposals have been made to seed these moons with bases and research stations. Some plans even include possible terraforming to make them suitable for long-term habitation.

The Jovian Moons:
Jupiter’s largest moons, Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto – known as the Galileans, after their founder (Galileo Galilei) – have long been the subject of scientific interest. For decades, scientists have speculated about the possible existence of a subsurface ocean on Europa, based on theories about the planet’s tidal heating (a consequence of its eccentric orbit and orbital resonance with the other moons).

Analysis of images provided by the Voyager 1 and Galileo probes added weight to this theory, showing regions where it appeared that the subsurface ocean had melted through. What’s more, the presence of this warm water ocean has also led to speculation about the existence of life beneath Europa’s icy crust – possibly around hydrothermal vents at the core-mantle boundary.

Because of this potential for habitability, Europa has also been suggested as a possible site for terraforming. As the argument goes, if the surface temperature could be increased, and the surface ice melted, the entire planet could become a ocean world. Sublimation of the ice, which would release water vapor and gaseous volatiles, would then be subject to electrolysis (which already produces a thin oxygen atmosphere).

However, Europa has no magnetosphere of its own, and lies within Jupiter’s powerful magnetic field. As a result, its surface is exposed to significant amounts of radiation – 540 rem of radiation per day compared to about 0.0030 rem per year here on Earth – and any atmosphere we create would begin to be stripped away by Jupiter. Ergo, radiation shielding would need to be put in place that could deflect the majority of this radiation.

And then there is Ganymede, the third most-distant of Jupiter’s Galilean moons. Much like Europa, it is a potential site of terraforming, and presents numerous advantages. For one, it is the largest moon in our Solar System, larger than our own moon and even larger that the planet Mercury. In addition, it also has ample supplies of water ice, is believed to have an interior ocean, and even has its own magnetosphere.

Hence, if the surface temperature were increased and the ice sublimated, Ganymede’s atmosphere could be thickened. Like Europa, it would also become an ocean planet, and its own magnetosphere would allow for it to hold on to more of its atmosphere. However, Jupiter’s magnetic field still exerts a powerful influence over the planet, which means radiation shields would still be needed.

Lastly, there is Callisto, the fourth-most distant of the Galileans. Here too, abundant supplies of water ice, volatiles, and the possibility of an interior ocean all point towards the potential for habitability. But in Callisto’s case, there is the added bonus of it being beyond Jupiter’s magnetic field, which reduces the threat of radiation and atmospheric loss.

Artist's cut-away representation of the internal structure of Ganymede. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/kelvinsong
Artist’s cut-away representation of the internal structure of Ganymede. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/kelvinsong

The process would begin with surface heating, which would sublimate the water ice and Callisto’s supplies of frozen ammonia. From these oceans, electrolysis would lead to the formation of an oxygen-rich atmosphere, and the ammonia could be converted into nitrogen to act as a buffer gas. However, since the majority of Callisto is ice, it would mean that the planet would lose considerable mass and have no continents. Again, an ocean planet would result, necessitated floating cities or massive colony ships.

The Cronians Moons:
Much like the Jovian Moons, Saturn’s Moons (also known as the Cronian) present opportunities for terraforming. Again, this is due to the presence of water ice, interior oceans, and volatile elements. Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, also has an abundance of methane that comes in liquid form (the methane lakes around its northern polar region) and in gaseous form in its atmosphere. Large caches of ammonia are also believed to exist beneath he surface ice.

Titan is also the only natural satellite to have a dense atmosphere (one and half times the pressure of Earth’s) and the only planet outside of Earth where the atmosphere is nitrogen-rich. Such a thick atmosphere would mean that it would be far easier to equalize pressure for habitats on the planet. What’s more, scientists believe this atmosphere is a prebiotic environment rich in organic chemistry – i.e. similar to Earth’s early atmosphere (only much colder).

iagram of the internal structure of Titan according to the fully differentiated dense-ocean model. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Kelvinsong
Diagram of the internal structure of Titan according to the fully differentiated dense-ocean model. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Kelvinsong

As such, converting it to something Earth-like would be feasible. First, the surface temperature would need to be increased. Since Titan is very distant from the Sun, and already has an abundance of greenhouse gases, this could only be accomplished through orbital mirrors. This would sublimate the surface ice, releasing ammonia beneath, which would lead to more heating.

The next step would involve converting the atmosphere to something breathable. As already noted, Titan’s atmosphere is nitrogen-rich, which would remove the need for introducing a buffer gas. And with the availability of water, oxygen could be introduced by generating it through electrolysis. At the same time, the methane and other hydrocarbons would have to be sequestered, in order to prevent an explosive mixture with the oxygen.

But given the thickness and multi-layered nature of Titan’s ice, which is estimated to account for half of its mass, the moon would be very much an ocean planet- i.e. with no continents or landmasses to build on. So once again, any habitats would have to take the form of either floating platforms or large ships.

Enceladus is another possibility, thanks to the recent discovery of a subsurface ocean. Analysis by the Cassini space probe of the water plumes erupting from its southern polar region also indicated the presence of organic molecules. As such, terraforming it would be similar to terraforming Jupiter’s moon of Europa, and would yield a similar ocean moon.

Artist's rendering of possible hydrothermal activity that may be taking place on and under the seafloor of Enceladus. Image Credit: NASA/JPL
Artist’s rendering of possible hydrothermal activity that may be taking place on and under the seafloor of Enceladus. Credit: NASA/JPL

Again, this would likely have to involve orbital mirrors, given Enceladus’ distance from our Sun. Once the ice began to sublimate, electrolysis would generate oxygen gas. The presence of ammonia in the subsurface ocean would also be released, helping to raise the temperature and serving as a source of nitrogen gas, with which to buffer the atmosphere.

In addition to the Solar System, extra-solar planets (aka. exoplanets) are also potential sites for terraforming. Of the 1,941 confirmed exoplanets discovered so far, these planets are those that have been designated “Earth-like. In other words, they are terrestrial planets that have atmospheres and, like Earth, occupy the region around a star where the average surface temperature allows for liquid water (aka. habitable zone).

The first planet confirmed by Kepler to have an average orbital distance that placed it within its star’s habitable zone was Kepler-22b. This planet is located about 600 light years from Earth in the constellation of Cygnus, was first observed on May 12th, 2009 and then confirmed on Dec 5th, 2011. Based on all the data obtained, scientists believe that this world is roughly 2.4 times the radius of Earth, and is likely covered in oceans or has a liquid or gaseous outer shell.

In addition, there are star systems with multiple “Earth-like” planets occupying their habitable zones. Gliese 581 is a good example, a red dwarf star that is located 20.22 light years away from Earth in the Libra constellation. Here, three confirmed and two possible planets exist, two of which are believed to orbit within the star’s habitable zone. These include the confirmed planet Gliese 581 d and the hypothetical Gliese 581 g.

Tau Ceti is another example. This G-class star, which is located roughly 12 light years from Earth in the constellation Cetus, has five possible planets orbiting it. Two of these are Super-Earths that are believed to orbit the star’s habitable zone – Tau Ceti e and Tau Ceti f. However, Tau Ceti e is believed to be too close for anything other than Venus-like conditions to exist on its surface.

In all cases, terraforming the atmospheres of these planet’s would most likely involve the same techniques used to terraform Venus and Mars, though to varying degrees. For those located on the outer edge of their habitable zones, terraforming could be accomplished by introducing greenhouse gases or covering the surface with low albedo material to trigger global warming. On the other end, solar shades and carbon sequestering techniques could reduce temperatures to the point where the planet is considered hospitable.

The latest list of potentially habitable exoplanets, courtesy of The Planetary Habitability Laboratory. Credit:
The latest list of potentially habitable exoplanets, courtesy of The Planetary Habitability Laboratory. Credit:

Potential Benefits:

When addressing the issue of terraforming, there is the inevitable question – “why should we?” Given the expenditure in resources, the time involved, and other challenges that naturally arise (see below), what reasons are there to engage in terraforming? As already mentioned, there is the reasons cited by Musk, about the need to have a “backup location” to prevent any particular cataclysm from claiming all of humanity.

Putting aside for the moment the prospect of nuclear holocaust, there is also the likelihood that life will become untenable on certain parts of our planet in the coming century. As the NOAA reported in March of 2015, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have now surpassed 400 ppm, a level not seen since the the Pliocene Era – when global temperatures and sea level were significantly higher.

And as a series of scenarios computed by NASA show, this trend is likely to continue until 2100, and with serious consequences. In one scenario, carbon dioxide emissions will level off at about 550 ppm toward the end of the century, resulting in an average temperature increase of 2.5 °C (4.5 °F). In the second scenario, carbon dioxide emissions rise to about 800 ppm, resulting in an average increase of about 4.5 °C (8 °F). Whereas the increases predicted in the first scenario are sustainable, in the latter scenario, life will become untenable on many parts of the planet.

NASA predicts that temperatures could increase by up to 4.5 C by 2100. Credit:
NASA predicts that, based on current emissions rates, temperatures could increase by up to 4.5 degrees Celsius by 2100. Credit:

As a result of this, creating a long-term home for humanity on Mars, the Moon, Venus, or elsewhere in the Solar System may be necessary. In addition to offering us other locations from which to extract resources, cultivate food, and as a possible outlet for population pressures, having colonies on other worlds could mean the difference between long-term survival and extinction.

There is also the argument that humanity is already well-versed in altering planetary environments. For centuries, humanity’s reliance on industrial machinery, coal and fossil fuels has had a measurable effect Earth’s environment. And whereas the Greenhouse Effect that we have triggered here was not deliberate, our experience and knowledge in creating it here on Earth could be put to good use on planet’s where surface temperatures need to be raised artificially.

In addition, it has also been argued that working with environments where there is a runaway Greenhouse Effect – i.e. Venus – could yield valuable knowledge that could in turn be used here on Earth. Whether it is the use of extreme bacteria, introducing new gases, or mineral elements to sequester carbon, testing these methods out on Venus could help us to combat Climate Change here at home.

It has also been argued that Mars’ similarities to Earth are a good reason to terraform it. Essentially, Mars once resembled Earth, until its atmosphere was stripped away, causing it to lose virtually all the liquid water on its surface. Ergo, terraforming it would be tantamount to returning it to its once-warm and watery glory. The same argument could be made of Venus, where efforts to alter it would restore it to what it was before a runaway Greenhouse Effect turned it into the harsh, extremely hot world it is today.

One of a few "fan-based" Mars Colonization Transport (MCT) design concepts. The design may be dominated by massive spherical fuel tanks and inflatable modules to house 100 Mars colonists. (Credit: Reddit user P3rkoz)
Artist’s concept for a SpaceX Mars Colonization Transport (MCT). (Credit: Reddit user P3rkoz)

Last, but not least, there is argument that colonizing the Solar System could usher in an age of “post-scarcity”. If humanity were to build outposts and based on other worlds, mine the asteroid belt and harvest the resources of the Outer Solar System, we would effectively have enough minerals, gases, energy, and water resources to last us indefinitely. It could also help trigger a massive acceleration in human development, defined by leaps and bounds in technological and social progress.

Potential Challenges:

When it comes right down to it, all of the scenarios listed above suffer from one or more of the following problems:

  1. They are not possible with existing technology
  2. They require a massive commitment of resources
  3. They solve one problem, only to create another
  4. They do not offer a significant return on the investment
  5. They would take a really, REALLY long time

Case in point, all of the potential ideas for terraforming Venus and Mars involve infrastructure that does not yet exist and would be very expensive to create. For instance, the orbital shade concept that would cool Venus calls for a structure that would need to be four times the diameter of Venus itself (if it were positioned at L1). It would therefore require megatons of material, all of which would have to be assembled on site.

All asteroids and comets visited by spacecraft as of November 2010 Credits: Montage by Emily Lakdawalla. Ida, Dactyl, Braille, Annefrank, Gaspra, Borrelly: NASA / JPL / Ted Stryk. Steins: ESA / OSIRIS team. Eros: NASA / JHUAPL. Itokawa: ISAS / JAXA / Emily Lakdawalla. Mathilde: NASA / JHUAPL / Ted Stryk. Lutetia: ESA / OSIRIS team / Emily Lakdawalla. Halley: Russian Academy of Sciences / Ted Stryk. Tempel 1, Hartley 2: NASA / JPL / UMD. Wild 2: NASA / JPL.
All asteroids and comets visited by spacecraft as of November 2010. Credits: Emily Lakdawalla/NASA/JPL/Ted Stryk/ESA/OSIRIS team/JHUAPL/ISAS/JAXA/RAS/UMD

In contrast, increasing the speed of Venus’s rotation would require energy many orders of magnitude greater than the construction of orbiting solar mirrors. As with removing Venus’ atmosphere, the process would also require a significant number of impactors that would have to be harnessed from the outer solar System – mainly from the Kuiper Belt.

In order to do this, a large fleet of spaceships would be needed to haul them, and they would need to be equipped with advanced drive systems that could make the trip in a reasonable amount of time. Currently, no such drive systems exist, and conventional methods – ranging from ion engines to chemical propellants – are neither fast or economical enough.

To illustrate, NASA’s New Horizons mission took more than 11 years to get make its historic rendezvous with Pluto in the Kuiper Belt, using conventional rockets and the gravity-assist method. Meanwhile, the Dawn mission, which relied relied on ionic propulsion, took almost four years to reach Vesta in the Asteroid Belt. Neither method is practical for making repeated trips to the Kuiper Belt and hauling back icy comets and asteroids, and humanity has nowhere near the number of ships we would need to do this.

The Moon’s proximity makes it an attractive option for terraforming. But again, the resources needed – which would likely include several hundred comets – would again need to be imported from the outer Solar System. And while Mercury’s resources could be harvested in-situ or brought from Earth to paraterraform its northern polar region, the concept still calls for a large fleet of ships and robot builders which do not yet exist.

The moons of Saturn, from left to right: Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, Rhea; Titan in the background; Iapetus (top) and irregularly shaped Hyperion (bottom). Some small moons are also shown. All to scale. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
The moons of Saturn, from left to right: Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, Rhea; Titan in the background; Iapetus (top) and Hyperion (bottom). Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

The outer Solar System presents a similar problem. In order to begin terraforming these moons, we would need infrastructure between here and there, which would mean bases on the Moon, Mars, and within the Asteroid Belt. Here, ships could refuel as they transport materials to the Jovian sand Cronian systems, and resources could be harvested from all three of these locations as well as within the systems themselves.

But of course, it would take many, many generations (or even centuries) to build all of that, and at considerable cost. Ergo, any attempts at  terraforming the outer Solar System would have to wait until humanity had effectively colonized the inner Solar System. And terraforming the Inner Solar System will not be possible until humanity has plenty of space hauler on hand, not to mention fast ones!

The necessity for radiation shields also presents a problem. The size and cost of manufacturing shields that could deflect Jupiter’s magnetic field would be astronomical. And while the resources could be harvest from the nearby Asteroid Belt, transporting and assembling them in space around the Jovian Moons would again require many ships and robotic workers. And again, there would have to be extensive infrastructure between Earth and the Jovian system before any of this could proceed.

As for item three, there are plenty of problems that could result from terraforming. For instance, transforming Jupiter’s and Saturn’s moons into ocean worlds could be pointless, as the volume of liquid water would constitute a major portion of the moon’s overall radius. Combined with their low surface gravities, high orbital velocities and the tidal effects of their parent planets, this could lead to severely high waves on their surfaces. In fact, these moons could become totally unstable as a result of being altered.

Mars-manned-mission vehicle (NASA Human Exploration of Mars Design Reference Architecture 5.0) feb 2009. Credit: NASA
Mars-manned-mission vehicle (NASA Human Exploration of Mars Design Reference Architecture 5.0) feb 2009. Credit: NASA

There is also several questions about the ethics of terraforming. Basically, altering other planets in order to make them more suitable to human needs raises the natural question of what would happen to any lifeforms already living there. If in fact Mars and other Solar System bodies have indigenous microbial (or more complex) life, which many scientists suspect, then altering their ecology could impact or even wipe out these lifeforms. In short, future colonists and terrestrial engineers would effectively be committing genocide.

Another argument that is often made against terraforming is that any effort to alter the ecology of another planet does not present any immediate benefits. Given the cost involved, what possible incentive is there to commit so much time, resources and energy to such a project? While the idea of utilizing the resources of the Solar System makes sense in the long-run, the short-term gains are far less tangible.

Basically, harvested resources from other worlds is not economically viable when you can extract them here at home for much less. And real-estate is only the basis of an economic model if the real-estate itself is desirable. While MarsOne has certainly shown us that there are plenty of human beings who are willing to make a one-way trip to Mars, turning the Red Planet, Venus or elsewhere into a “new frontier” where people can buy up land will first require some serious advances in technology, some serious terraforming, or both.

As it stands, the environments of Mars, Venus, the Moon, and the outer Solar System are all hostile to life as we know it. Even with the requisite commitment of resources and people willing to be the “first wave”, life would be very difficult for those living out there. And this situation would not change for centuries or even millennia. Like it not, transforming a planet’s ecology is very slow, laborious work.

Artist's concept of a Martian astronaut standing outside the Mars One habitat. Credit: Bryan Versteeg/Mars One
Artist’s concept of a Martian astronaut standing outside the Mars One habitat. Credit: Bryan Versteeg/Mars One


So… after considering all of the places where humanity could colonize and terraform, what it would take to make that happen, and the difficulties in doing so, we are once again left with one important question. Why should we? Assuming that our very survival is not at stake, what possible incentives are there for humanity to become an interplanetary (or interstellar) species?

Perhaps there is no good reason. Much like sending astronauts to the Moon, taking to the skies, and climbing the highest mountain on Earth, colonizing other planets may be nothing more than something we feel we need to do. Why? Because we can! Such a reason has been good enough in the past, and it will likely be sufficient again in the not-too-distant future.

This should is no way deter us from considering the ethical implications, the sheer cost involved, or the cost-to-benefit ratio. But in time, we might find that we have no choice but to get out there, simply because Earth is just becoming too stuffy and crowded for us!

We have written many interesting articles about terraforming here at Universe Today. Here’s Could We Terraform the Moon?, Should We Terraform Mars?, How Do We Terraform Mars?, How Do We Terraform Venus?, and Student Team Wants to Terraform Mars Using Cyanobacteria.

We’ve also got articles that explore the more radical side of terraforming, like Could We Terraform Jupiter?, Could We Terraform The Sun?, and Could We Terraform A Black Hole?

Astronomy Cast also has good episodes on the subject, like Episode 96: Humans to Mar, Part 3 – Terraforming Mars

For more information, check out Terraforming Mars  at NASA Quest! and NASA’s Journey to Mars.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Jupiter’s Moon Europa


Jupiter‘s four largest moons – aka. the Galilean Moons, consisting of Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto – are nothing if not fascinating. Ever since their discovery over four centuries ago, these moons have been a source of many great discoveries. These include the possibility of internal oceans, the presence of atmospheres, volcanic activity, one has a magnetosphere (Ganymede), and possibly having more water than even Earth.

But arguably, the most fascinating of the Galilean Moons is Europa: the sixth closest moon to Jupiter, the smallest of the four, and the sixth largest moon in the Solar System. In addition to having an icy surface and a possible warm-water interior, this moon is considered to be one of the most-likely candidates for possessing life outside of Earth.

Continue reading “Jupiter’s Moon Europa”

The Planet Jupiter

Jupiter and Io. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

Ever since the invention of the telescope four hundred years ago, astronomers have been fascinated by the gas giant known as Jupiter. Between its constant, swirling clouds, its many, many moons, and its Giant Red Spot, there are many things about this planet that are both delightful and fascinating.

But perhaps the most impressive feature about Jupiter is its sheer size. In terms of mass, volume, and surface area, Jupiter is the biggest planet in our Solar System by a wide margin. And since people have been aware of its existence for thousands of years, it has played an active role in the cosmological systems many cultures. But just what makes Jupiter so massive, and what else do we know about it?

Size, Mass and Orbit:

Jupiter’s mass, volume, surface area and mean circumference are 1.8981 x 1027 kg, 1.43128 x 1015 km3, 6.1419 x 1010 km2, and 4.39264 x 105 km respectively. To put that in perspective, Jupiter diameter is roughly 11 times that of Earth, and 2.5 the mass of all the other planets in the Solar System combined.

But, being a gas giant, it has a relatively low density – 1.326 g/cm3 – which is less than one quarter of Earth’s. This means that while Jupiter’s volume is equivalent to about 1,321 Earths, it is only 318 times as massive. The low density is one way scientists are able to determine that it is made mostly of gases, though the debate still rages on what exists at its core (see below).

Jupiter orbits the Sun at an average distance (semi-major axis) of 778,299,000 km (5.2 AU), ranging from 740,550,000 km (4.95 AU) at perihelion and 816,040,000 km (5.455 AU) at aphelion. At this distance, Jupiter takes 11.8618 Earth years to complete a single orbit of the Sun. In other words, a single Jovian year lasts the equivalent of 4,332.59 Earth days.

However, Jupiter’s rotation is the fastest of all the Solar System’s planets, completing a rotation on its axis in slightly less than ten hours (9 hours, 55 minutes and 30 seconds to be exact. Therefore, a single Jovian year lasts 10,475.8 Jovian solar days. This orbital period is two-fifths that of Saturn, which means that the two largest planets in our Solar System form a 5:2 orbital resonance.

Structure and Composition:

Jupiter is composed primarily of gaseous and liquid matter. It is the largest of the gas giants, and like them, is divided between a gaseous outer atmosphere and an interior that is made up of denser materials. It’s upper atmosphere is composed of about 88–92% hydrogen and 8–12% helium by percent volume of gas molecules, and approx. 75% hydrogen and 24% helium by mass, with the remaining one percent consisting of other elements.

This cut-away illustrates a model of the interior of Jupiter, with a rocky core overlaid by a deep layer of liquid metallic hydrogen. Credit: Kelvinsong/Wikimedia Commons
This cut-away illustrates a model of the interior of Jupiter, with a rocky core overlaid by a deep layer of liquid metallic hydrogen. Credit: Kelvinsong/Wikimedia Commons

The atmosphere contains trace amounts of methane, water vapor, ammonia, and silicon-based compounds as well as trace amounts of benzene and other hydrocarbons. There are also traces of carbon, ethane, hydrogen sulfide, neon, oxygen, phosphine, and sulfur. Crystals of frozen ammonia have also been observed in the outermost layer of the atmosphere.

The interior contains denser materials, such that the distribution is roughly 71% hydrogen, 24% helium and 5% other elements by mass. It is believed that Jupiter’s core is a dense mix of elements – a surrounding layer of liquid metallic hydrogen with some helium, and an outer layer predominantly of molecular hydrogen. The core has also been described as rocky, but this remains unknown as well.

In 1997, the existence of the core was suggested by gravitational measurements, indicating a mass of from 12 to 45 times the Earth’s mass, or roughly 4%–14% of the total mass of Jupiter. The presence of a core is also supported by models of planetary formation that indicate how a rocky or icy core would have been necessary at some point in the planet’s history in order to collect all of its hydrogen and helium from the protosolar nebula.

However, it is possible that this core has since shrunk due to convection currents of hot, liquid, metallic hydrogen mixing with the molten core. This core may even be absent now, but a detailed analysis is needed before this can be confirmed. The Juno mission, which launched in August 2011 (see below), is expected to provide some insight into these questions, and thereby make progress on the problem of the core.

The temperature and pressure inside Jupiter increase steadily toward the core. At the “surface”, the pressure and temperature are believed to be 10 bars and 340 K (67 °C, 152 °F). At the “phase transition” region, where hydrogen becomes metallic, it is believed the temperature is 10,000 K (9,700 °C; 17,500 °F) and the pressure is 200 GPa. The temperature at the core boundary is estimated to be 36,000 K (35,700 °C; 64,300 °F) and the interior pressure at roughly 3,000–4,500 GPa.

Jupiter’s Moons:

The Jovian system currently includes 67 known moons. The four largest are known as the Galilean Moons, which are named after their discoverer, Galileo Galilei. They include: Io, the most volcanically active body in our Solar System; Europa, which is suspected of having a massive subsurface ocean; Ganymede, the largest moon in our Solar System; and Callisto, which is also thought to have a subsurface ocean and features some of the oldest surface material in the Solar System.

Then there’s the Inner Group (or Amalthea group), which is made up of four small moons that have diameters of less than 200 km, orbit at radii less than 200,000 km, and have orbital inclinations of less than half a degree. This groups includes the moons of Metis, Adrastea, Amalthea, and Thebe. Along with a number of as-yet-unseen inner moonlets, these moons replenish and maintain Jupiter’s faint ring system.

Jupiter also has an array of Irregular Satellites, which are substantially smaller and have more distant and eccentric orbits than the others. These moons are broken down into families that have similarities in orbit and composition, and are believed to be largely the result of collisions from large objects that were captured by Jupiter’s gravity.

Illustration of Jupiter and the Galilean satellites. Credit: NASA
Illustration of Jupiter and the Galilean satellites. Credit: NASA

Atmosphere and Storms:

Much like Earth, Jupiter experiences auroras near its northern and southern poles. But on Jupiter, the auroral activity is much more intense and rarely ever stops. The intense radiation, Jupiter’s magnetic field, and the abundance of material from Io’s volcanoes that react with Jupiter’s ionosphere create a light show that is truly spectacular.

Jupiter also experiences violent weather patterns. Wind speeds of 100 m/s (360 km/h) are common in zonal jets, and can reach as high as 620 kph (385 mph). Storms form within hours and can become thousands of km in diameter overnight. One storm, the Great Red Spot, has been raging since at least the late 1600s. The storm has been shrinking and expanding throughout its history; but in 2012, it was suggested that the Giant Red Spot might eventually disappear.

Jupiter is perpetually covered with clouds composed of ammonia crystals and possibly ammonium hydrosulfide. These clouds are located in the tropopause and are arranged into bands of different latitudes, known as “tropical regions”. The cloud layer is only about 50 km (31 mi) deep, and consists of at least two decks of clouds: a thick lower deck and a thin clearer region.

There may also be a thin layer of water clouds underlying the ammonia layer, as evidenced by flashes of lightning detected in the atmosphere of Jupiter, which would be caused by the water’s polarity creating the charge separation needed for lightning. Observations of these electrical discharges indicate that they can be up to a thousand times as powerful as those observed here on the Earth.

A color composite image of the June 3rd Jupiter impact flash. Credit: Anthony Wesley of Broken Hill, Australia.
A color composite image of the June 3rd Jupiter impact flash. Credit: Anthony Wesley

Historical Observations of the Planet:

As a planet that can be observed with the naked eye, humans have known about the existence of Jupiter for thousands of years. It has therefore played a vital role in the mythological and astrological systems of many cultures. The first recorded mentions of it date back to the Babylon Empire of the 7th and 8th centuries BCE.

In the 2nd century, the Greco-Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy constructed his famous geocentric planetary model that contained deferents and epicycles to explain the orbit of Jupiter relative to the Earth (i.e. retrograde motion). In his work, the Almagest, he ascribed an orbital period of 4332.38 days to Jupiter (11.86 years).

In 499, Aryabhata – a mathematician-astronomer from the classical age of India – also used a geocentric model to estimate Jupiter’s period as 4332.2722 days, or 11.86 years. It has also been ventured that the Chinese astronomer Gan De discovered Jupiter’s moons in 362 BCE without the use of instruments. If true, it would mean that Galileo was not the first to discovery the Jovian moons two millennia later.

In 1610, Galileo Galilei was the first astronomer to use a telescope to observe the planets. In the course of his examinations of the outer Solar System, he discovered the four largest moons of Jupiter (now known as the Galilean Moons). The discovery of moons other than Earth’s was a major point in favor of Copernicus’ heliocentric theory of the motions of the planets.

The first star party? Galileo shows of the sky in Saint Mark's square in Venice. Note the lack of adaptive optics. (Illustration in the Public Domain).
Galileo shows of the sky in Saint Mark’s square in Venice. Note the lack of adaptive optics. Credit: Public Domain

During the 1660s, Cassini used a new telescope to discover Jupiter’s spots and colorful bands and observed that the planet appeared to be an oblate spheroid. By 1690, he was also able to estimate the rotation period of the planet and noticed that the atmosphere undergoes differential rotation. In 1831, German astronomer Heinrich Schwabe produced the earliest known drawing to show details of the Great Red Spot.

In 1892, E. E. Barnard observed a fifth satellite of Jupiter using the refractor telescope at the Lick Observatory in California. This relatively small object was later named Amalthea, and would be the last planetary moon to be discovered directly by visual observation.

In 1932, Rupert Wildt identified absorption bands of ammonia and methane in the spectra of Jupiter; and by 1938, three long-lived anticyclonic features termed “white ovals” were observed. For several decades, they remained as separate features in the atmosphere, sometimes approaching each other but never merging. Finally, two of the ovals merged in 1998, then absorbed the third in 2000, becoming Oval BA.

Beginning in the 1950s, radiotelescopic research of Jupiter began. This was due to astronomers Bernard Burke and Kenneth Franklin’s detection of radio signals coming from Jupiter in 1955. These bursts of radio waves, which corresponded to the rotation of the planet, allowed Burke and Franklin to refine estimates of the planet’s rotation rate.

Infrared image of Jupiter from SOFIA’s First Light flight composed of individual images at wavelengths of 5.4 (blue), 24 (green) and 37 microns (red) made by Cornell University’s FORCAST camera. A recent visual-wavelength picture of approximately the same side of Jupiter is shown for comparison. The white stripe in the infrared image is a region of relatively transparent clouds through which the warm interior of Jupiter can be seen. (Visual image credit: Anthony Wesley)
Infrared image of Jupiter from SOFIA’s First Light flight composed of individual images at wavelengths made by Cornell University’s FORCAST camera. Credit: Anthony Wesley/Cornell University

Over time, scientists discovered that there were three forms of radio signals transmitted from Jupiter – decametric radio bursts, decimetric radio emissions, and thermal radiation. Decametric bursts vary with the rotation of Jupiter, and are influenced by the interaction of Io with Jupiter’s magnetic field.

Decimetric radio emissions – which originate from a torus-shaped belt around Jupiter’s equator – are caused by cyclotronic radiation from electrons that are accelerated in Jupiter’s magnetic field. Meanwhile, thermal radiation is produced by heat in the atmosphere of Jupiter. Visualizations of Jupiter using radiotelescopes have allowed astronomers to learn much about its atmosphere, thermal properties and behavior.


Since 1973, a number of automated spacecraft have been sent to the Jovian system and performed planetary flybys that brought them within range of the planet. The most notable of these was Pioneer 10, the first spacecraft to get close enough to send back photographs of Jupiter and its moons. Between this mission and Pioneer 11, astronomers learned a great deal about the properties and phenomena of this gas giant.

Artist impression of Pioneer 10 at Jupiter. Image credit: NASA/JPL
Artist impression of Pioneer 10 at Jupiter. Image credit: NASA/JPL

For example, they discovered that the radiation fields near the planet were much stronger than expected. The trajectories of these spacecraft were also used to refine the mass estimates of the Jovian system, and radio occultations by the planet resulted in better measurements of Jupiter’s diameter and the amount of polar flattening.

Six years later, the Voyager missions began, which vastly improved the understanding of the Galilean moons and discovered Jupiter’s rings. They also confirmed that the Great Red Spot was anticyclonic, that its hue had changed sine the Pioneer missions – turning from orange to dark brown – and spotted lightning on its dark side. Observations were also made of Io, which showed a torus of ionized atoms along its orbital path and volcanoes on its surface.

On December 7th, 1995, the Galileo orbiter became the first probe to establish orbit around Jupiter, where it would remain for seven years. During its mission, it conducted multiple flybys of all the Galilean moons and Amalthea and deployed an probe into the atmosphere. It was also in the perfect position to witness the impact of Comet Shoemaker–Levy 9 as it approached Jupiter in 1994.

On September 21st, 2003, Galileo was deliberately steered into the planet and crashed in its atmosphere at a speed of 50 km/s, mainly to avoid crashing and causing any possible contamination to Europa – a moon which is believed to harbor life.

Artist impression of New Horizons with Jupiter. Image credit: NASA/JPL/JHUAPL
Artist impression of New Horizons with Jupiter. Image credit: NASA/JPL/JHUAPL

Data gathered by both the probe and orbiter revealed that hydrogen composes up to 90% of Jupiter’s atmosphere. The temperatures data recorded was more than 300 °C (570 °F) and the wind speed measured more than 644 kmph (400 mph) before the probe vaporized.

In 2000, the Cassini probe (while en route to Saturn) flew by Jupiter and provided some of the highest-resolution images ever taken of the planet. While en route to Pluto, the New Horizons space probe flew by Jupiter and measured the plasma output from Io’s volcanoes, studied all four Galileo moons in detail, and also conducting long-distance observations of Himalia and Elara.

NASA’s Juno mission, which launched in August 2011, achieved orbit around the Jovian planet on July 4th, 2016. The purpose of this mission to study Jupiter’s interior, its atmosphere, its magnetosphere and gravitational field, ultimately for the purpose of determining the history of the planet’s formation (which will shed light on the formation of the Solar System).

As the probe entered its polar elliptical orbit on July 4th after completing a 35-minute-long firing of the main engine, known as Jupiter Orbital Insertion (or JOI). As the probe approached Jupiter from above its north pole, it was afforded a view of the Jovian system, which it took a final picture of before commencing JOI.

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. Credit: NASA/Lockheed Martin

On July 10th, the Juno probe transmitted its first imagery from orbit after powering back up its suite of scientific instruments. The images were taken when the spacecraft was 4.3 million km (2.7 million mi) from Jupiter and on the outbound leg of its initial 53.5-day capture orbit. The color image shows atmospheric features on Jupiter, including the famous Great Red Spot, and three of the massive planet’s four largest moons – Io, Europa and Ganymede, from left to right in the image.

The next planned mission to the Jovian system will be performed by the European Space Agency’s Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer (JUICE), due to launch in 2022, followed by NASA’s Europa Clipper mission in 2025.


The discovery of exoplanets has revealed that planets can get even bigger than Jupiter. In fact, the number of “Super Jupiters” observed by the Kepler space probe (as well as ground-based telescopes) in the past few years has been staggering. In fact, as of 2015, more than 300 such planets have been identified.

Notable examples include PSR B1620-26 b (Methuselah), which was the first super-Jupiter to be observed (in 2003). At 12.7 billion years of age, it is also the third oldest known planet in the universe. There’s also HD 80606 b (Niobe), which has the most eccentric orbit of any known planet, and 2M1207b (Lerna), which orbits the brown dwarf Fomalhaut b (Illion).

Here’s an interesting fact. Scientist theorize that a gas gain could get 15 times the size of Jupiter before it began deuterium fusion, making it a brown dwarf star. Good thing too, since the last thing the Solar System needs is for Jupiter to go nova!

Jupiter was appropriately named by the ancient Romans, who chose to name after the king of the Gods (also known as Jove). The more we have come to know and understand about this most-massive of Solar planets, the more deserving of this name it appears.

We have many interesting articles on Jupiter here at Universe Today. Here are some articles on the color and gravity of Jupiter, how it got its name, and how it shaped our Solar System.

Got questions about Jupiter’s greater mysteries? Then here’s Does Jupiter Have a Solid Core?, Could Jupiter Become a Star?, Could We Live on Jupiter?, and Could We Terraform Jupiter?

We have recorded a whole series of podcasts about the Solar System at Astronomy Cast.

By Jove: Jupiter Reaches Opposition on February 6th

Did you see the brilliant Full Snow Moon rising last night? Then you might’ve also noticed a bright nearby ‘star’. Alas, that was no star, but the largest planet in our solar system, Jupiter. And it was no coincidence that the king of the gas giants is near the Full Moon this February, as Jupiter reaches opposition this Friday on February 6th at 18:00 Universal Time or 1:00 PM EST.

As the term implies, opposition simply means that an outer planet sits opposite to the Sun. Mercury and Venus can never reach opposition. Orbiting the Sun once every 11.9 years, oppositions for Jupiter occur once every 399 days, or roughly every 13 months. This means that only one opposition for Jupiter can happen per year max, and these events precess forward on the Gregorian calendar by about a month and move one zodiacal constellation eastward per year.

Starry Night.
The apparent path of Jupiter through Spring 2015. Created using Starry Night Education Software.

Through a telescope, Jupiter exhibits an ochre disk 40” in diameter striped with two main cloud belts. The northern equatorial belt seems permanent, while the southern equatorial belt is prone to pulling a ‘disappearing act’ every decade of so, as last occurred in 2010. The Great Red Spot is another prominent feature gracing the Jovian cloud tops, though its appeared salmon to brick-colored in recent years and seems to be shrinking.

Jupiter rotates once every 9.9 hours, fast enough that you can watch one full rotation in a single night.

Photo by author
Jupiter near opposition in 2014. Photo by author.

It’s also fascinating to watch the nightly dance of Jupiter’s four large moons Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto as they alternatively cast shadows on the Jovian cloud tops and disappear into its shadow. Near opposition, this shadow casting activity is nearly straight back as seen from our perspective.  Here is the tiny ‘mini-solar system’ that fascinated Galileo and further convinced him that the Earth isn’t the center of the cosmos. Jupiter has 67 moons in all, though only 4 are within range of modest sized telescopes… Even 5th place runner up Himalia is a challenge near the dazzling disk of Jove at +14th magnitude.

Also watch for a phenomenon known as the Seeliger or Opposition Effect, a sudden surge in brightness like a highway retro-reflector in the night.

Opposition 2015 finds Jupiter just across the Leo-Cancer border in the realm of the Crab. Jupiter crossed from Leo into Cancer on February 4th, and will head back into the constellation of the Lion on June 10th. Jupiter then spends the rest of 2015 in Leo and heads for another opposition next year on March 8th.

Jupiter will also make a dramatic pass just 24’ — less than the diameter of the Full Moon — from Regulus on August 11th, though both are only 11.5 degrees east of the Sun in the dusk sky. Jupiter also forms a 1 degree circle with Regulus, Mercury and Jupiter 14.5 degrees east of the Sun on August 7th.

Jupiter reaches a maximum declination north for 2015 on April 7th at 18 degrees above the celestial equator. We’re still in a favorable cycle of oppositions for Jupiter for northern hemisphere viewers, as the gas giant doesn’t plunge south of the equator until September 2016.

Looking farther ahead, Jupiter reaches east quadrature on May 4th, and sits 90 degrees elongation from the Sun as the planet and its moons cast their shadows far off to the side from our Earthly perspective. We’re still also in the midst of a plane crossing: February 5th is actually equinox season on Jupiter! This also means that there’s still a cycle of mutual eclipses and occultations of the Jovian moons in progress. One such complex ballet includes (moons) on the night of February 26th.

February 26th. Starry Night
The close grouping of Io, Callisto and Ganymede on the night of February 26th. Created using Starry Night Education software.

And yes, it is possible to see the Earth transit the disk of the Sun from Jove’s vantage point. This last occurred in 2014, and will next occur in 2020.

But wait, there’s more. Jupiter also makes a thrilling pass near Venus on July 1st, when the two sit just 0.4 degrees apart. We fully expect a spike in “what are those two bright stars?” queries right around that date, though hopefully, the conjunction won’t spark any regional conflicts.

Jupiter, Regulus and the rising waning gibbous Moon on the evening of February 4th. Credit: Stellarium.

Solar conjunction for Jupiter then occurs on August 26th, with the planet visible in the Solar Heliospheric Observatory’s (SOHO) LASCO C3 camera from August 16th to September 6th.

Emerging into the dawn sky, Jupiter then passes 0.4 degrees from Mars on October 17th and has another 1.1 degree tryst with Venus on October 26th.

Looking for Jupiter in the daytime near the waxing gibbous Moon. Credit: Stellarium.
Looking for Jupiter in the daytime near the waxing gibbous Moon. Credit: Stellarium.

Let the Jovian observing season begin!

-Wonder what a gang of rogue space clowns is doing at Jupiter? Read Dave Dickinson’s original tale Helium Party and find out!

NASA’s “Remastered” View of Europa is the Best Yet

Europa, Jupiter’s sixth-closest moon, has long been a source of fascination and wonder for astronomers. Not only is it unique amongst its Jovian peers for having a smooth, ice-covered surface, but it is believed that warm, ocean waters exist beneath that crust – which also makes it a strong candidate for extra-terrestrial life.

And now, combining a mosaic of color images with modern image processing techniques, NASA has produced a new version of what is perhaps the best view of Europa yet. And it is quite simply the closest approximation to what the human eye would see, and the next best thing to seeing it up close.

The high-resolution color image, which shows the largest portion of the moon’s surface, was made from images taken by NASA’s Galileo probe. Using the Solid-State Imaging (SSI) experiment, the craft captured these images during it’s first and fourteenth orbit through the Jupiter system, in 1995 and 1998 respectively.

The view was previously released as a mosaic with lower resolution and strongly enhanced color (as seen on the JPL’s website). To create this new version, the images were assembled into a realistic color view of the surface that approximates how Europa would appear to the human eye.

The puzzling, fascinating surface of Jupiter's icy moon Europa looms large in this newly-reprocessed color view, made from images taken by NASA's Galileo spacecraft in the late 1990s. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute
This newly-reprocessed color view of Europa was made from images taken by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft in the late 1990s. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute

As shown above, the new image shows the stunning diversity of Europa’s surface geology. Long, linear cracks and ridges crisscross the surface, interrupted by regions of disrupted terrain where the surface ice crust has been broken up and re-frozen into new patterns.

Images taken through near-infrared, green, and violet filters have been combined to produce this view. The images have been corrected for light scattered outside of the image to provide a color correction that is calibrated by wavelength. Gaps in the images have been filled with simulated color based on the color of nearby surface areas with similar terrain types.

These color variations across the surface are associated with differences in geologic feature type and location. For example, areas that appear blue or white contain relatively pure water ice, while reddish and brownish areas include non-ice components in higher concentrations.

The polar regions, visible at the left and right of this view, are noticeably bluer than the more equatorial latitudes, which look more white. This color variation is thought to be due to differences in ice grain size in the two locations.

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

This view of Europa stands out as the color view that shows the largest portion of the moon’s surface at the highest resolution. An earlier, lower-resolution version of the view, published in 2001, featured colors that had been strongly enhanced. Space imaging enthusiasts have produced their own versions of the view using the publicly available data, but NASA has not previously issued its own rendition using near-natural color.

The image also features many long, curving, and linear fractures in the moon’s bright ice shell. Scientists are eager to learn if the reddish-brown fractures, and other markings spattered across the surface, contain clues about the geological history of Europa and the chemistry of the global ocean that is thought to exist beneath the ice.

This is of particular interest to scientists since this supposed ocean is the most promising place in our Solar System, beyond Earth, to look for  present-day environments that are suitable for life. The Galileo mission found strong evidence that a subsurface ocean of salty water is in contact with a rocky seafloor. The cycling of material between the ocean and ice shell could potentially provide sources of chemical energy that could sustain simple life forms.

Future missions to Europa, which could involve anything from landers to space penetrators, may finally answer the question of whether or not life exists beyond our small, blue planet. Picturing this world in all of its icy glory is another small step along that path.

In addition to the newly processed image, JPL has released a new video that explains why this likely ocean world is a high priority for future exploration:

Further Reading: NASA

Observing Challenge: Catch a Series of Mutual Eclipses by Jupiter’s Moons

Missing the planets this month? With Mars receding slowly to the west behind the Sun at dusk, the early evening sky is nearly devoid of planetary action in the month of November 2014. Stay up until about midnight local, however, and brilliant Jupiter can be seen rising to the east.  Well placed for northern hemisphere viewers in the constellation Leo, Jupiter is about to become a common fixture in the late evening sky as it heads towards opposition next year in early February.

November 25th
The line-up during the November 25th eclipse event (see chart below).  Note that Jupiter’s moons are in 1-2-3-4 order! Credit: Stellarium.

An interesting phenomenon also reaches its climax, as we make the first of a series of passes through the ring plane of Jupiter’s moons this week on November 8th, 2014. This means that we’re currently in a season where Jupiter’s major moons not only pass in front of each other, but actually eclipse and occult one another on occasion as they cast their shadows out across space.

These types of events are challenging but tough to see, owing to the relatively tiny size of Jupiter’s moons. Followers of the giant planet are familiar with the ballet performed by the four large Jovian moons of Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. This was one of the first things that Galileo documented when he turned his crude telescope towards Jupiter in late 1609. The shadows the moons cast back on the Jovian cloud tops are a familiar sight, easily visible in a small telescope. Errors in the predictions for such passages provided 17th century Danish astronomer Ole Rømer with a way to measure the speed of light, and handy predictions of the phenomena for Jupiter’s moons can be found here.

A look at selected upcoming occultation events. Credit: Starry Night.
Credit and copyright Christoper Go, used with permission.
Credit and copyright Christoper Go, used with permission.

Mutual occultations and eclipses of the Jovian moons are much tougher to see. The moons range in size from 3,121 km (Europa) to 5,262 km (Ganymede), which translates to 0.8”-1.7” in apparent diameter as seen from the Earth. This means that the moons only look like tiny +6th magnitude stars even at high magnification, though sophisticated webcam imagers such as Michael Phillips and Christopher Go have managed to actually capture disks and tease out detail on the tiny moons.

A double shadow transit from 2013. Photo by author.

What is most apparent during these mutual events is a slow but steady drop in combined magnitude, akin to that of an eclipsing variable star such as Algol. Running video, Australian astronomer David Herald has managed to document this drop during the 2009 season (see the video above) and produce an effective light curve using LiMovie.

Such events occur as we cross through the orbital planes of Jupiter’s moons. The paths of the moons do not stray more than one-half of a degree in inclination from Jupiter’s equatorial plane, which itself is tilted 3.1 degrees relative to the giant planet’s orbit. Finally, Jupiter’s orbit is tilted 1.3 degrees relative to the ecliptic. Plane crossings as seen from the Earth occur once every 5-6 years, with the last series transpiring in 2009, and the next set due to begin around 2020. Incidentally, the slight tilt described above also means that the outermost moon Callisto is the only moon that can ‘miss’ Jupiter’s shadow on in-between years. Callisto begins to so once again in July 2016.

Mutual events for the four Galilean moons come in six different flavors:

A look at the six types of phenomena possible with Jupiter’s four large moons. Created by the author.

This month, Jupiter reaches western quadrature on November 14th, meaning that Jupiter and its moons sit 90 degrees from the Sun and cast their shadows far off to the side as seen from the Earth. This margin slims as the world heads towards opposition on February 6th, 2015, and Jupiter once again joins the evening lineup of planets.

Early November sees Jupiter rising around 1:00 AM local, about six hours prior to sunrise. Jupiter is also currently well placed for northern hemisphere viewers crossing the constellation Leo.

The Institut de Mécanique Céleste et de Calcul des Éphémérides (IMCCEE) based in France maintains an extensive page following the science and the circumstances for the previous 2009 campaign and the ongoing 2015 season.

We also distilled down a table of key events for North America coming up through November and December:

A look at selected events through the end of 2014. 1=Io, 2=Europa, 3=Ganymede, 4=Callisto. O=Occultation, E=Eclipse. Created by the author, adapted from the IMCCEE chart for the 2014-15 season.

Fun fact: we also discovered during our research for this piece that these events can also produce a total solar eclipse very similar to the near perfect circumstances enjoyed on the Earth via our Moon:

Note that this season also produces another triple shadow transit on January 24th, 2015.

Observing and recording these fascinating events is as simple as running video at key times. If you’ve imaged Jupiter and its moons via our handy homemade webcam method, you also possess the means to capture and analyze the eclipses and occultations of Jupiter’s moons.

A view never seen from the Earth… Io (upper left) paired with a crescent Europa during New Horizons’ 2007 flyby. Credit: NASA/JPL.

Good luck, and let us know of your tales of astronomical tribulation and triumph!

Seeing in Triplicate: Catching a Rare Triple Shadow Transit of Jupiter’s Moons

The planet Jupiter is always fascinating to watch. Not only do surface features pop in and out of existence on its swirling cloud tops, but its super fast rotation — once every 9.9 hours — assures its face changes rapidly. And the motion of its four large Galilean moons is captivating to observe as well. Next week offers a special treat for well-placed observers: a triple shadow transit of the moons Callisto, Europa and Ganymede on the evening of June 3rd.

The view at 19:00 UT/3:00 PM EDT on June 3rd. Credit: Starry Night Education Software.
The view at 19:00 UT/3:00 PM EDT on June 3rd. Credit: Starry Night Education Software.

Now for the bad news: only a small slice of the planet will witness this rare treat in dusk skies. This is because Jupiter starts the month of June 40 degrees east of the Sun and currently sets around 11 PM local, just 3 hours after local sunset. Never fear, though, it may just be possible to spy a portion of this triple transit from North American longitudes with a little careful planning.

The action begins on June 3rd at 15:20 Universal Time as Callisto’s shadow slides on to the disk of Jupiter, to be followed by Europa and Ganymede’s shadow in quick succession hours later. All three shadows are cast back onto the disk of Jupiter from 18:05 to 19:53 UT, favoring European and African longitudes at sunset.  The final shadow, that of Ganymede, moves off the disk of Jupiter at 21:31 UT.

The hemisphere of the Earth facing towards Jupiter from the beginning of the triple shadow transit to the end. the red line marks the day/night terminator. Credit: Stellarium.
The hemisphere of the Earth facing towards Jupiter from the beginning of the triple shadow transit to the end. the red line marks the day/night terminator. Credit: Stellarium.

The following video simulation begins at around 15:00 UT just prior to the ingress of Callisto’s shadow and runs through 22:00 UT:

Triple shadow transits of Jupiter’s moons are fairly rare: the last such event occurred last year on October 12th, 2013 favoring North America and the next won’t occur until January 24th, 2015. Jean Meeus calculated that only 31 such events involving 3 different Jovian moons either transiting Jupiter and/or casting shadows onto its disk occur as seen from Earth between 1981 and 2040. The June 3rd event is also the longest in the same 60 year period studied.

The 1:2:4 orbital resonance of the Jovian moons Io, Europa and Ganymede. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The 1:2:4 orbital resonance of the Jovian moons Io, Europa and Ganymede. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Can four shadow transits occur at once? Unfortunately, the answer is no. The inner three moons are in a 1:2:4 resonance, meaning that one will always be left out of the picture when two are in front. This also means that Callisto must be included for any triple shadow transit to occur. Next week’s event sees Callisto, Europa and Ganymede crossing in front of Jupiter and casting shadows onto its disk while Io is hidden behind Jupiter in its enormous shadow. Callisto is also the only one of the four large Jovian moons that can “miss” the disk of Jupiter on certain years, owing to the slight inclination of its orbit to the ecliptic. Callisto thus doesn’t always cast a shadow onto the disk of Jupiter, and we’re currently in the middle of a cycle of Callisto shadow transits that started in July of 2013 and runs through July 2016. These “Callisto transit seasons” occur twice during Jupiter’s 11.8 year orbit, and triple shadow transits must also occur within these periods.

So, what’s a North American observer to do? Well, it is possible to spot and track Jupiter with a telescope in the broad daylight. Jupiter rises at around 9:20 AM local in early June, and the waxing crescent Moon passes 5.4 degrees south of it on June 1st. The Moon stands 30 degrees from the planet on June 3rd, and it may be juuusst possible to use it as a guide to the daytime event. A “GoTo” telescope with precise pointing will make this task even easier, allowing you to track Jupiter and the triple shadow transit across the daytime sky from North American longitudes. But be sure to physically block the blazing June Sun behind a building or structure to avoid accidentally catching its blinding glare in the eyepiece!

The orientation of Jupiter the Moon and the Sun at 4PM EDT on June 3rd. Credit: Stellarium.
The orientation of Jupiter, the Moon and the Sun at 4PM EDT on June 3rd. Credit: Stellarium.

Do the shadows of the moons look slightly different to you? A triple shadow transit is a great time to compare them to one another, from the inky hard black dot of the inner moons Europa and Io, to the diffuse large shadow of Callisto. With practice, you can actually identify which moon is casting a shadow during any transit just by its size and appearance!

A study of three multi-shadow transits: last year's (upper left) a double shadow transit from early 2014 (upper right) and 2004 (bottom. Photos by author.
A study of three multi-shadow transits: last year’s (upper left) a double shadow transit from early 2014 (upper right) and 2004 (bottom). Photos by author.

Shadow transits of Jupiter’s moons also played an interesting role in the history of astronomy as well. Danish astronomer Ole Rømer noted that shadow transits were being observed at slightly different times than predicted depending on the distance of Jupiter and the Earth, and made the first rough calculation of the speed of light in 1676 based on this remarkable insight. Celestial navigators were also intrigued for centuries with the idea of using the phenomena of Jupiter’s moons as a natural clock to gauge longitude. It’s a sound idea in theory, though in practice, it proved tough to make accurate observations from the pitching deck of a ship at sea.

Jupiter captured near the daytime Moon. Photo by author.
Jupiter captured near the daytime Moon. Photo by author.

Miss the June 3rd event? There’s still two fine opportunities to see Jupiter do its impression of the Earth-Moon system and appear to have only one satellite – Callisto – on the evenings of May 30th and June 7th.

From there, Jupiter slides lower into the dusk as June progresses and heads towards solar conjunction on July 24th.

Let us know if you manage to catch sight of this rare event!

-Send those shadow transit pics in to Universe Today at our Flickr forum.

An Amazing Capture of Jupiter and its Moons

It’s always a thrill to watch the action at Jupiter, as its moons pass in front of and behind the gas giant planet. We wrote recently about this month’s opposition of Jove on January 5th, marking the start of the Jupiter evening viewing season for 2014. 

Astrophotographer Michael A. Philips also recently undertook a challenging series of sequences of Jupiter and its moons Io and Ganymede, with stunning results. You can see the motion of Jupiter’s rotation, the Great Red Spot and even a bit of cloud swirl as Io disappears behind Jupiter and Ganymede begins to transit in front and cast a shadow back onto the Jovian cloud tops.

Concerning the capture, Michael wrote on his blog:

“This night was a lucky night. I had not looked at the weather forecast enough to know if it would be good or not. Cold temps aside, I decided earlier in the day to set up and go out with the 14” f/4.5 scope named Akule. As an added bonus, Mitchell Duke tipped me off to a transit of the Jovian moon, Ganymede.”

Note that Jupiter and its moons are currently casting their shadows nearly straight back from our perspective. Expect that to change, however, in the coming months,as Jupiter heads towards eastern dusk quadrature on April 1st and we see the action from a sideways angle. Watch the video in full screen mode and you’ll note that Mike captured some detail on the surface of Ganymede as well! Generally, at the eyepiece, the moons of Jupiter disappear entirely due to low contrast against the bulk of the planet, with only the black dot of the shadow seen… this video capture gives the ingress of Ganymede at the start of the transit a great 3-D appearance.

Webcam imaging of planets has really taken off in the past decade, with backyard astronomers now routinely capturing images that far surpass professional and textbook images from just a decade prior. Great images can be taken using nothing more than a telescope, a laptop, free image stacking software such as Registax, and a webcam converted to fit into an eyepiece holder… you may find that you’ve got the gear sitting around to image Jupiter, tonight.

Mr. Phillips rig, however, is a little more advanced. He notes in the description of the video that he’s using a Flea3 camera from PointGrey Research with a 5x Barlow lens yielding a 9200mm focal length. He’s also shooting at 120 frames per second, and taking successive red, green and blue images for 30 seconds. Finally, a derotation of Jupiter – yes, it really rotates that quickly, even in a short sequence – is accomplished using a sophisticated program named WINJupos.

Video stacking gives processors the ability to “freeze” and nab the best moments of seeing from thousands of frames. Some imagers hand select frames one by one, though many programs, such as Registax, use algorithms to nab the best frames from a preselected percentage of the total shot.

Local seeing conditions also play a key role in image capturing.

“I moved far away from the house as possible, and I think that helped some,” Michael noted. “I also started cooling the spit out of the mirror, aggressively. Even when cooled for a few hours in the winter, the heat in the Pyrex mirror comes back. I think there’s a small heat engine inside the beast!”

For best results, imagers tend to go after planets when they’re at their highest in the sky, and viewed through the least amount of turbulent atmosphere. This is when a planet is transiting the local north to south meridian, and when it’s at opposition, which Jupiter is this month. At opposition, a planet transits at local midnight. The same goes for the best opportunities for visual observing as well.

Shadow transits of Jupiter’s moons are also just plain fun to watch. In an often unchanging universe, they offer a chance to see something unfolding in real time. Jupiter has the fastest rotation of any planet at 9.9 hours, and the large Galilean moons of Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto are tidally locked in their rotation, keeping one hemisphere permanently turned towards Jupiter like the Moon does orbiting the Earth. The inner three moons also keep a 1:2:4 orbital resonance, assuring you’ll never see more than three of the four Galilean moons transiting from your line of sight at once. You can see two of the inner three moons, plus Callisto in transit, but never all four at the same time! A triple transit last occurred on October 12th, 2013, and will next occur for observers in eastern Europe and Africa this year on June 3rd.

We’re also currently in the midst of a series of shadow transits for the outermost Galilean moon Callisto, which end in July 2016. Can you identify the different moons by the size and hue of shadows they cast? Sky & Telescope publishes a great table for the ingress and egress of Jupiter’s moons. You can also check them out using the freeware program Stellarium.

The double shadow transit of February 6th as seen at 11:22 UT. Created by the author using Starry Night Education software.
The double shadow transit of February 6th as seen at 11:22 UT. Created by the author using Starry Night Education software.

Can’t wait that long? A double shadow transit involving Europa and Callisto occurs in just a few weeks for western North America from 10:20 UT-12:44UT on the morning of February 6th, a chance for another stunning animation sequence…

Congrats to Michael Phillips on a great capture!