Galileo’s mission ends

GalileoThe mission of the unmanned space probe Galileo ends in the clouds of the giant planet Jupiter, which it has orbited for eight years. Even as Galileo plunges toward Jupiter, it detects and reports evidence of a thin ring sharing the orbit of the small moon Amalthea, and then disintegrates as it falls into Jupiter. NASA has opted to send Galileo to its destruction, rather than risking a collision with Europa, which may harbor some of the ingredients necessary for life and might be contaminated if Galileo impacted it; Galileo’s mission was extended three times, with the vehicle lasting six years longer than anticipated in the original mission plan’s estimates, which included for the harsh radiation environment of Jupiter as a factor in expecting only a two-year mission.

New Horizons at Jupiter

IoNASA’s New Horizons probe, on a one-way trip to become the first probe to swing past distant Pluto, picks up speed dramatically as it slingshots past Jupiter. New Horizons sensors are trained on the giant planet to get the first look at Jupiter since Galileo swan-dived into its crushing atmosphere. New Horizons gains nearly 9,000 miles per hour as it swings past Jupiter, which will put it at Pluto in July 2015. New Horizons’ camera catches an erupting volcano on Jupiter’s moon Io, spewing material 200 miles above the surface.

Juno to Jupiter!

JunoNASA launches the unmanned Juno space probe on its way to Jupiter, on a trajectory that will accelerate the vehicle through a series of maneuvers, including a gravity assist pass of Earth, en route to Jupiter. Once it arrives at the solar system’s largest planet, Juno will enter a polar orbit to monitor the planet’s clouds and magnetic field over a period of one year beginning in 2016. Juno is solar-powered, without the customary nuclear power source that has been a feature of all previous outer solar system missions. Since it will spend time within the heaviest area of Jupiter’s magnetosphere, Juno’s components are built into a hexagonal structure which acts as a heavy-duty Faraday cage to block out the radiation trapped within Jupiter’s magnetic field.

Mega-eruption on Io

IoAstronomers using the Keck Observatory’s Hawaii-based telescopes and near-infrared cameras capture an image of a devastating volcanic eruption on Io, one of Jupiter’s largest moons (and known since 1979 to be very volcanically active). The eruption, unleashing enough molten material to reshape hundreds of square miles of Io’s surface, also reveals that the material erupted is hotter than any eruption in Earth’s recorded history. This is the most violent eruption seen to date in the solar system, and caps off two weeks of intense activity observed by the astronomers.

Juno arrives at Jupiter

JunoNASA’s Juno space probe successfully pulls of a risky orbital insertion maneuver, slowing itself down just enough to be captured into an unprecedented polar orbit around Jupiter. Launched in 2011, Juno’s first close pass of Jupiter brings it within 3,100 miles of Jupiter’s cloudtops, the closest any spacecraft has ever approached the huge planet. Its polar orbit will allow it to reduces its exposure to Jupiter’s intense magnetic field, which is powerful enough in the planet’s equatorial regions to damage or destroy on-board electronics. Juno’s mission is expected to last 20 months.

Juno gets up close and personal with Jupiter

JupiterNASA’s Juno spacecraft completes its first orbit of giant planet Jupiter with an orbit-shaping manever that takes it as close to Jupiter’s cloudtops as 2,600 miles – less than the width of the continental United States – at a speed of over 100,000 miles per hour. Juno obtains the first close-up views of the north and south poles of the planet, revealing a roiling hotbed of storm activity unlike the poles of relatively quiet Saturn. In addition to photos, Juno scans the planet in the infrared and ultraviolet portions of the spectrum. This is scheduled to be Juno’s closest flyby of its entire mission.

Juno: close, but no science

JunoNASA’s Juno space probe makes a third close swing past Jupiter, but engineering problems make it a blind pass: concerns over stuck valves in the engine leads ground controllers to cancel a planned engine burn to shorten the length of Juno’s orbit, and then mere hours before its latest close pass, Juno goes into a safe mode which shuts down all instruments and cameras pending intervention from Earth. Juno principal investigator Scott Bolton assures that Juno could, theoretically, complete its mission with longer, unadjusted orbits if need be; Juno’s next close pass by Jupiter is expected to happen in December, impacting all future events in the mission plan.

Europa Clipper

Europa ClipperAfter a long process of gaining sufficient approval to be budgeted for a design phase, NASA’s Europa Clipper spacecraft gets a name and a preliminary shape, but no completion date or launch window any more specific than “the 2020s”, likely putting it at Jupiter’s intriguing moon Europa in the early 2030s after a series of gravity assists. Europa Clipper is intended to closely survey Europa from orbit, attempting to focus on its icy surface and the saltwater ocean believed to be hidden beneath that surface.

Charging the view of distant atmospheres

Jupiter and Europa as seen by Hubble in August 2020NASA and ESA announce that spectrographic analysis of Hubble Space Telescope data gathered during observations of Jupiter’s icy moon Europa reveals that Europa has a persistent atmosphere of water vapor, but only on the hemisphere of the moon that is opposite of the direction of its orbital motion. (This unusual effect had been predicted in computer modeling, but had not been directly observed until now.) The atmosphere is present in Hubble spectroscopy data as old as 1999 and as recent as 2015. The stability of the water vapor in the atmosphere is the real surprise find, since surface-based water was assumed to be in solid ice form.

Launching Lucy

LUCY mission renderingNASA launches the Lucy spacecraft on its twelve-year mission to study select specimens of the Trojan asteroid swarms that both precede and trail the planet Jupiter at the stable LaGrange points in its orbit. Lucy’s complex trajectory calls for it to conduct gravity assist flybys of Earth in 2022 and 2024, and to survey the main asteroid belt body 52246 Donaldjohanson in 2025, en route to reaching its first Trojan asteroid, 3548 Eurybates, in 2027. Future targets include 15094 Polymele later in 2027, 11351 Leucus and 21900 Orus in 2028, and – after a further gravity assist flyby of Earth in 2030 – the binary Trojan pair 617 Patroclus-Menoetius in 2033. Lucy’s name is not an abbreviation; it is named after a famous fossil skeleton discovered in 1971 by a team led by anthropologist David Johanson; it is hoped that studying the Trojan asteroids will lead to discoveries that make them similar “missing links” in the solar system’s own fossil record.