Mysterious Europa Gets an Extreme Closeup From NASA’s Juno Probe

Juno's view of Europa
The ridges and troughs on Europa stand out in an image from NASA's Juno orbiter. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / SwRI / MSSS / Björn Jónsson)

Over the course of a brief two-hour opportunity, NASA’s Juno spacecraft captured a rare close look at Europa, an ice-covered moon of Jupiter that’s thought to harbor a hidden ocean — and perhaps an extraterrestrial strain of marine life.

Juno has been orbiting Jupiter since 2016, but this week brought the best opportunity to look at Europa, which is the prime target for investigation by NASA’s Europa Clipper probe in the 2030s. On Sept. 29, the orbiter buzzed over the moon’s surface at a velocity in excess of 52,000 mph (23.6 km per second), and at an altitude of 352 kilometers (219 miles).

That’s as close as any spacecraft has come to Europa since the Galileo orbiter’s 218-mile flyby in 2000.

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A Fascinating Look at Jupiter's Clouds Where the Light Intensity is Converted Into 3D

A still image from the 3D animation that shows the elevation of Jupiter's cloud tops. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstädt

In July 2016, NASA’s Juno space probe reached Jupiter, becoming the second spacecraft in history to orbit the gas giant (the first being the Galileo probe that orbited Jupiter from 1995 to 2003). The data it has sent back has led to new revelations about the Jovian atmosphere, magnetosphere, gravitational field, structure, and composition. While its primary mission was intended to only last until 2018, a mission extension means that Juno will continue to orbit Jupiter’s poles (a perijove maneuver) and send back stunning images and data until 2025.

Recently, a team of citizen scientists led by mathematician and software developer Gerald Eichstädt used images taken by the probe’s visible-light camera/telescope (the JunoCam) to create a 3D animation of Jupiter’s upper atmosphere. Eichstädt’s animation was presented at the 2022 Europlanet Science Congress (EPSC), which took place from September 18 – 23 in Granada, and shows the relative heights of the cloud tops of Jupiter that reveal delicately textured swirls and peaks. Eichstädt’s work also showcased the potential for citizen science and public engagement with today’s missions.

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NASA’s Juno To Skim the Surface of Jupiter’s Icy Moon Europa

This next week will mark a scientifically valuable achievement for NASA’s Juno mission, as the pioneering spacecraft is slated to fly within 358 kilometers (222 miles) of Jupiter’s icy moon Europa on September 29 at 5:36 a.m. EDT (2:36 a.m. PDT) as part of its extended mission to explore the Jupiter system. A flyby this close to Europa’s surface will allow Juno to acquire some of the highest-resolution images ever taken of the icy moon. For context, the last mission to explore Europa in depth was NASA’s Galileo spacecraft, which got within 351 kilometers (218 miles) of the surface on January 3, 2000.

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Jupiter Missions Could Also Help Search for Dark Matter

In a recent study published in the Journal of High Energy Physics, two researchers from Brown University demonstrated how data from past missions to Jupiter can help scientists examine dark matter, one of the most mysterious phenomena in the universe. The reason past Jupiter missions were chosen is due to the extensive amount of data gathered about the largest planet in the solar system, most notably from the Galileo and Juno orbiters. The elusive nature and composition of dark matter continues to elude scientists, both figuratively and literally, because it does not emit any light. So why do scientists continue to study this mysterious—and completely invisible—phenomena?

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Juno’s Entire 42nd Flight Past Jupiter in One Amazing Mosaic

Jupiter - Perijove 42, with images taken by the Juno spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Kevin M. Gill

On May 23, 2022, the Juno spacecraft made another close pass of Jupiter, with its suite of scientific instruments collecting data and its JunoCam visible light camera snapping photos all the while. This close pass, called a perijove, is the 42nd time the spacecraft has swung past Jupiter since Juno’s arrival in 2016.

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Jupiter and Ganymede are Connected by Magnetic Fields

Credit: SwRI

On July 5th, 2016, NASA’s Juno spacecraft arrived at Jupiter and began its four-year mission (which has since been extended to 2025) to study the gas giant’s atmosphere, composition, magnetosphere, and gravitational environment. Juno is the first dedicated mission to study Jupiter since the Galileo probe studied the system between 1995 and 2003. The images and data it has sent back to Earth have revealed much about Jupiter’s atmosphere, aurorae, polar storms, internal structure, and moons.

In addition, the Juno mission has allowed astronomers to learn more about how magnetic interaction between some of Jupiter’s moons and its atmosphere leads the gas giant to experience aurorae around its northern and southern poles. After analyzing data from Juno’s payload, a team of researchers from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) observed how streams of electrons from Ganymede (Jupiter’s largest moon) leave an “auroral footprint” in Jupiter’s atmosphere.

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Ganymede in Infrared Taken During Juno’s Most Recent Flyby

Infrared view of Jupiter’s icy moon Ganymede was obtained by the Jovian Infrared Auroral Mapper (JIRAM) instrument aboard NASA’s Juno spacecraft Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/ASI/INAF/JIRAM

On July 20th, 2021, NASA’s Juno spacecraft conducted a flyby of Jupiter’s (and the Solar System’s) largest moon, Ganymede. This close pass was performed as part of the orbiter’s thirty-fourth orbit of the gas giant (Perijove 34), which saw the probe come within 50,109 km (31,136 mi) of the moon’s surface. The mission team took this opportunity to capture images of Ganymede’s using Juno’s Jovian Infrared Auroral Mapper (JIRAM).

These were combined with images acquired during two previous flybys to create a new infrared map of Ganymede’s surface, which was released in honor of the mission’s tenth anniversary (which launched from Earth on Aug. 5th, 2011). This map and the JIRAM instrument could provide new information on Ganymede’s icy shell and the composition of its interior ocean, which could shed led on whether or not it could support life.

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This is the View From Juno During its Flyby of Ganymede and Jupiter

Visualizations shape how we perceive space exploration.  Whether it’s the Pale Blue Dot, the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, Earthrise, or any other myriad images captured as part of this great endeavor, they all help inspire the next generation of explorers.  Now, with advances in image capture and processing technology, we can finally start to take the next step in those visualizations – video.  Ingenuity was recently captured on video during its first flight a few months ago.  And this week, NASA released a breathtaking video of Juno’s view of Jupiter and Ganymede, one of its moons, as it flew past the gas giant.

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Finally! New Pictures of Ganymede, Thanks to Juno

Ganymede seen by JunoCam. The image is derived from a raw PJ34 JunoCam image, decompanded and stretched in a linear way in order to remove dark and to improve contrast moderately. Credit : NASA / JPL / SwRI / MSSS / Gerald Eichstädt.

Well, hello there old friend! This week the Juno mission to the Jupiter system made the first close flyby of Jupiter’s giant moon Ganymede, and as you might guess, the images are spectacular. This is the first time we’ve seen a close-up view of the Solar System’s largest moon since the Galileo mission 20 years ago. Voyager gave us the first views of Ganymede 40 years ago.  Now, planetary scientists will be able observe any changes in Ganymede’s surface over time.

But first, the image editing gurus back on Earth are having a go at the raw images sent back by Juno. Our lead image comes from Gerald Eichstädt, who worked his magic to bring out the details of Ganymede, and it’s a stunner.

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