Swirly Southern Picture Of Jupiter Makes Us Want To Visit Right Now

Gimme a rocketship – we want to see what those bands are made of! This is a strange view of Jupiter, a familiar gas giant that humanity has sent several spacecraft to. This particular view, taken in 2000 and highlighted on the European Space Agency website recently, shows the southern hemisphere of the mighty planet.

The underneath glimpse came from the Cassini spacecraft while it was en route to Saturn. Lucky for researchers, at the time the Galileo Jupiter spacecraft was still in operation. But now that machine is long gone, leaving us to pine for a mission to Jupiter until another spacecraft gets there in 2016.

That spacecraft is called Juno and is a NASA spacecraft the agency sent aloft in August 2011. And here’s the cool thing; once it gets there, Juno is supposed to give us some insights into how the Solar System formed by looking at this particular planet.

Juno will repeatedly dive between the planet and its intense belts of charged particle radiation, coming only 5,000 kilometers (about 3,000 miles) from the cloud tops at closest approach. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Juno will repeatedly dive between the planet and its intense belts of charged particle radiation, coming only 5,000 kilometers (about 3,000 miles) from the cloud tops at closest approach. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

“Underneath its dense cloud cover, Jupiter safeguards secrets to the fundamental processes and conditions that governed our Solar System during its formation. As our primary example of a giant planet, Jupiter can also provide critical knowledge for understanding the planetary systems being discovered around other stars,” NASA wrote on the spacecraft’s web page.

The spacecraft is supposed to look at the amount of water in Jupiter’s atmosphere (an ingredient of planet formation), its magnetic and gravitational fields and also its magnetic environment — including auroras.

Much further in the future (if the spacecraft development is approved all the way) will be a European mission called JUICE, for Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer.

Artist's impression of the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) near Jupiter and one of its moons, Europa. Credit: ESA/AOES
Artist’s impression of the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) near Jupiter and one of its moons, Europa. Credit: ESA/AOES

The mission will check out the planet and three huge moons, Ganymede, Callisto and Europa, to get a better look at those surfaces. It is strongly believed that these moons could have global oceans that may be suitable for life.

Earlier this month, the European Space Agency approved the implementation phase for JUICE, which means that designers now have approval to come up with plans for the spacecraft. But it’s not going to launch until 2022 and get to Jupiter until 2030, if the schedule holds.

Meanwhile, observations of Jupiter do continue from the ground. One huge finding this year came from the Hubble Space Telescope, which confirmed observations that the Great Red Spot is shrinking for reasons that are yet unknown.

Historic Comet Smashup Brought Water to Jupiter’s Stratosphere

A large comet that peppered Jupiter two decades ago brought water into the giant planet’s atmosphere, according to new research from the Herschel space observatory.

Shoemaker-Levy 9 astounded astronomers worldwide when its 21 fragments hit Jupiter in June 1994. The event was predicted and observatories were trained on Jupiter as the impact occurred. The dark splotches the comet left behind were even visible in small telescopes. But apparently, those weren’t the only effects of the collision.

Herschel’s infrared camera revealed there is two to three times more water in the southern hemisphere of the planet, where the comet slammed into the atmosphere, than in the northern hemisphere. Further, the water is concentrated in high altitudes, around the various sites where Shoemaker-Levy 9 left its mark.

It is possible, researchers acknowledged, that water could have come from interplanetary dust striking Jupiter, almost like a “steady rain.” If this were the case, however, scientists expect the water would be evenly distributed and also would have filtered to lower altitudes. Jupiter’s icy moons were also in the wrong locations, researchers said, to have sent water towards the massive planet.

Internal water rising up was ruled out because it cannot penetrate the “cold trap” between Jupiter’s stratosphere and cloud deck, the researchers added.

“According to our models, as much as 95 percent of the water in the stratosphere is due to the comet impact,” said  Thibault Cavalié of the Astrophysical Laboratory of Bordeaux, in France, who led the research.

Eight impact sites from Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 are visible in this 1994 image. Credit: Hubble Space Telescope
Eight impact sites from Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 are visible in this 1994 image. Credit: Hubble Space Telescope

While researchers have suspected for years that Jupiter’s water came from the comet — ESA’s Infrared Space Observatory saw the water there years ago — these new observations provide more direct evidence of Shoemaker-Levy 9’s effect. The results were published in Astronomy and Astrophysics.

Herschel’s find provides more fodder for two missions that are scheduled for Jupiter observations in the coming few years. The first goal for NASA’s Juno spacecraft, which is en route and will arrive in 2016, is to figure out how much water is in Jupiter’s atmosphere.

Additionally, ESA’s Jupiter Icy moons Explorer (JUICE) mission is expected to launch in 2022. “It will map the distribution of Jupiter’s atmospheric ingredients in even greater detail,” ESA stated.

While ESA did not link the finding to how water came to be on Earth, some researchers believe that it was comets that delivered the liquid on to our planet early in Earth’s history. Others, however, say that it was outgassing from volcanic rocks that added water to the surface.

Conventional theory dictates ice was in our solar system from when it was formed, and today we know that many planets have water in some form. Last year, for example, water ice and organics were spotted at Mercury’s north pole.

Mars appeared to be full of water in the ancient past, as evidenced by a huge, underground trench recently discovered by scientists. There is frozen water at the Martian poles, and both the Curiosity and Spirit/Opportunity rover missions have found evidence of flowing water on the surface in the past.

The outer solar system also has its share of water, including in all four giant planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune) and (in ice form) on various moons. Even some exoplanets have water vapor in their atmospheres.

“All four giant planets in the outer solar system have water in their atmospheres, but there may be four different scenarios for how they got it,” added Cavalié. “For Jupiter, it is clear that Shoemaker-Levy 9 is by far the dominant source, even if other external sources may contribute also.”

Source: European Space Agency

ESA Turns On The JUICE For New Jupiter Mission


The European Space Agency has given the go-ahead for an exciting mission to explore the icy moons of Jupiter, as well as the giant planet itself.

JUICEJUpiter ICy moons Explorer — will consist of a solar-powered spacecraft that will spend 3.5 years within the Jovian system, investigating Ganymede, Europa and the upper atmosphere of Jupiter. Anticipated to launch in June 2022, JUICE would arrive at Jupiter in early 2030.

As its name implies, JUICE’s main targets are Jupiter’s largest icy moons — Ganymede and Europa — which are thought to have liquid oceans concealed beneath their frozen surfaces.

The largest moon in the Solar System, Ganymede is also thought to have a molten iron core generating a magnetic field much like Earth’s. The internal heat from this core may help keep Ganymede’s underground ocean liquid, but the dynamics of how it all works are not quite understood.

JUICE will also study the ice-coated Europa, whose cueball-smooth surface lined with cracks and jumbled mounds of frozen material seem to be sure indicators of a subsurface ocean, although how deep and how extensive is might be are still unknown — not to mention its composition and whether or not it could be hospitable to life.

The rust-colored cracks lining Europa's otherwise smooth surface hint at a subsurface ocean. (Ted Stryk)

“JUICE will give us better insight into how gas giants and their orbiting worlds form, and their potential for hosting life,” said Professor Alvaro Giménez Cañete, ESA’s Director of Science and Robotic Exploration.

The JUICE spacecraft was originally supposed to join a NASA mission dedicated to the investigation of Europa, but NASA deemed their proposed mission too costly and it was cancelled. According to Robert Pappalardo, study scientist for the Europa mission based at JPL, NASA may still supply some instruments for the spacecraft “assuming that the funding situation in the United States can bear it.”

Artist's rendering of JUICE at Jupiter. (ESA/AOES)

JUICE will also capture images of Jupiter’s moon Callisto and search for aurorae in the gas giant’s upper atmosphere, as well as measure the planet’s powerful magnetic field. Once arriving in 2030, it will spend at least three years exploring the Jovian worlds.

Read more in today’s news release from Nature, and stay tuned to ESA’s JUICE mission page here.

Recalibrated Galileo images © Ted Stryk. See more of Ted’s excellent work on his site Planetary Images From Then And Now.

JUICE to Jupiter Could Be ESA’s Next Major Science Mission


The Science Programme Committee of the European Space Agency has recommended that the next major space mission for ESA be an orbiter mission to the Jupiter system named JUICE, the JUpiter ICy moons Explorer. This mission would launch in about 2020 and explore potentially habitable moon around the gas giant, Callisto, Europa, and Ganymede.

This recommendation is not the final decision, but puts JUICE as a front-runner for when representatives of all 19 ESA member states meet to discuss the various mission candidates on May 2, 2012

Other missions being considered are ATHENA , the Advanced Telescope for High-ENergy Astrophysics (originally called IXO) – which would be the biggest X-ray telescope ever built — even though smaller in scope than the original IXO) and study the extremes of the Universe: from black holes to large-scale structure ; and NGO, the New Gravitational wave Observatory, a smaller version of LISA, a space-borne gravitational wave detector which would place a three satellites in orbit.

“This is a big blow to space based astrophysics,” wrote European science blogger Steinn Sigurdsson, who added that rumors are floating around that the NGO science team may be disbanded immediately, even though the new report issued by the Science Programme Committee is just a recommendation.

Planetary Society blogger Emily Lakdawalla also commented on the selection — if it is accepted — “represents a big win for planetary science and a big loss for space-based astrophysics in Europe. Which is, one can’t help but notice, opposite to what the currently-proposed NASA budget represents.”

Whatever mission is chosen for the next flagship science mission, ESA knows it will likely have to do it on their own.

In March 2011, NASA informed ESA that that it was highly unlikely that they could become a major partner in an “L” (large) mission for the 2020 timeframe.

“Given the resulting impossibility to continue with the mission concepts defined in the Assessment Phase, the Executive terminated the relative activities for EJSM-Laplace, IXO, and LISA, and informed the members of the three Science Study Teams of the termination of their mandate,” the new report says. “To preserve as much as possible the investment of the scientific community and of the Member States in the study activities of the L mission candidates, the Executive implemented a recovery action in the form of a fast-track re-formulation activity. The aim has been to ascertain if and which of the science goals of the L mission candidates could be implemented in the context of a programmatically feasible European-led, or potentially European-only mission.”

With NASA no longer in the mix, ESA knew they would have to descope their proposed missions, and with costs needing to be at least 20% less than originally planned. “Needless to say, missions within these constraints must be significantly less complex than the original L mission concepts selected in 2007,” the report says.

ESA’s science goals for the front-runner JUICE mission is to visit the Jupiter system concentrating on the characterization of three possible ocean-bearing worlds, Ganymede, Europa and Callisto as planetary objects and potential habitats and on the exploration of the Jupiter system considered as an archetype for gas giants in the solar system and elsewhere. The focus of JUICE is to characterize the conditions that may have led to the emergence of habitable environments among the Jupiter’s icy satellites.

Sources: Dynamics of Cats, Planetary Society blog,