May 1, 2007

Fantastic Flyby

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May 1, 2007: Today NASA released stunning new images of Jupiter and its moons taken by the New Horizons spacecraft. Views include a movie of a volcanic eruption on Jupiter's moon Io; a nighttime shot of auroras and lava on Io; a color photo of the "Little Red Spot" churning in Jupiter's cloudtops; images of small moons herding dust and boulders through Jupiter's faint rings--and much more: gallery.


"We'll be analyzing these data for months to come," says Science Mission Directorate Associate Administrator and New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of NASA Headquarters. "We have collected spectacular scientific products as well as evocative images."


Right: Europa rising over the clouds of Jupiter. The picture was one of a handful of the Jupiter system that New Horizons took primarily for artistic, rather than scientific, value. [More]

New Horizons came within 1.4 million miles of Jupiter on Feb. 28 in a gravity assist maneuver designed to trim three years off its travel time to Pluto. For several weeks before and after this closest approach, the piano-sized robotic probe trained its seven cameras and sensors on Jupiter and its four largest moons, storing data from nearly 700 observations on its digital recorders and gradually sending that information back to Earth. About 70 percent of the expected 34 gigabits of data has come back so far, radioed to NASA's largest antennas over more than 600 million miles.

This activity confirmed the successful testing of the instruments and operating software the spacecraft will use at Pluto. "Aside from setting up our 2015 arrival at Pluto, the Jupiter flyby was a stress test of our spacecraft and team, and both passed with very high marks," adds Stern.

A highlight of the flyby was the first close-up color scan of the Little Red Spot:




Above: Jupiter's "Little Red Spot." Credit: New Horizons. [More]

This storm is about half the size of Jupiter's larger Great Red Spot and about 70 percent of Earth's diameter. It formed in the late 1990s when three smaller storms collided and merged. The combined storm started out white, but began turning red about a year ago. Using New Horizons data, scientists will be able to search for clues about how these great storm systems form and why they change colors.

"This is our best look ever at a storm like this in its infancy," said Hal Weaver, New Horizons project scientist from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), Laurel, Md. APL built and operates the New Horizons spacecraft.

Under a range of lighting and viewing angles, New Horizons also grabbed the clearest images ever of the tenuous Jovian ring system. In them, scientists spotted a series of unexpected arcs and clumps of dust, indicative of a recent impact into the ring by a small object.


Right: Well-defined lanes of gravel- to boulder-sized material in Jupiter's charcoal black rings. Credit: New Horizons. [More]


Movies made from New Horizons images also provide an unprecedented look at ring dynamics, with the tiny inner moons Metis and Adrastea appearing to shepherd the materials around the rings. (Scroll to the middle of this page to see the movies.)

"We're starting to see that rings can evolve rapidly, with changes detectable during weeks and months," said Jeff Moore, New Horizons Jupiter Encounter science team lead from NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. "We've seen similar phenomena in the rings of Saturn."

Of Jupiter's four largest moons, the team focused much attention on volcanic Io, the most geologically active body in the solar system. New Horizons' cameras captured pockets of bright, glowing lava scattered across the surface; dozens of small, glowing spots of gas; and several fortuitous views of a sunlit umbrella-shaped dust plume rising 200 miles into space from the volcano Tvashtar, the best images yet of a giant eruption from the tortured volcanic moon.




Above: Io at night. Visible in the image are volcanic hot spots and an auroral glow, produced as intense radiation from Jupiter's magnetosphere bombards Io's atmosphere. Credit New Horizons. [More]

The timing and location of the spacecraft's trajectory also allowed it to spy many of the mysterious, circular troughs carved onto the icy moon Europa. Data on the size, depth and distribution of these troughs, discovered by the Jupiter-orbiting Galileo mission, will help scientists determine the thickness of the ice shell that covers Europa's global ocean.

Already the fastest spacecraft ever launched, New Horizons reached Jupiter 13 months after lifting off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., in January 2006. The flyby added 9,000 miles per hour, pushing the velocity of New Horizons past 50,000 miles per hour and setting up a flight by Pluto in July 2015.

Right: The Tvashtar volcano on Io. Click here to view a two-frame movie of the plume in action. [More]


The number of observations at Jupiter was actually twice that of those planned at Pluto. New Horizons made most of these observations during the spacecraft's closest approach to the planet, which was guided by more than 40,000 separate commands in the onboard computer.


"We can run simulations and take test images of stars, and learn that things would probably work fine at Pluto," said John Spencer, deputy lead of the New Horizons Jupiter Encounter Science Team, Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colo. "But having a planet to look at and lots of data to dig into tells us that the spacecraft and team can do all these amazing things. We might not have explored the full capabilities of the spacecraft if we didn't have this real planetary flyby to push the system and get our imaginations going."

There's more to come: New Horizons is making an unprecedented flight down Jupiter's long magnetotail, where it will analyze the intensities of sun-charged particles that flow hundreds of millions of miles beyond the giant planet. Stay tuned!


New Horizons is the first mission in NASA's New Frontiers Program of medium-class spacecraft exploration projects. The Discovery and New Frontiers Program Office at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center manages the New Frontiers Program for NASA Headquarters. The JHU Applied Physics Laboratory manages the New Horizons mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate.

Source: NASA press release | Production Editor: Dr. Tony Phillips | Credit: Science@NASA

More Information

New Horizons -- mission home page



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Grand Theft Pluto -- (Science@NASA) New Horizons flew past Jupiter on Feb. 28th and stole some velocity for its trip to Pluto

Alien Volcano -- (Science@NASA) When New Horizons flew past Jupiter on Feb. 28th, the spacecraft snapped a picture of a volcanic eruption on Io that amazed even longtime experts in the field.

Jupiter Flyby Photo Gallery

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