Sunday, May 28, 2017

New Views of the Planet Jupiter

The first results are in from the Juno mission exploring the giant planet Jupiter, and there are many surprises.
Look at the beautiful image here (click on it to see it bigger), showing the first detailed views of Jupiter's south pole region. The colors are a bit exaggerated, but the structures are real. You are seeing giant cyclones and anti-cyclones, as large as 600 miles across! That's extreme weather the 11 o'clock news team doesn't even dream about.

I'll remind you that Jupiter is not a solid planet -- most of it is made of gas and liquid. Yet there is enough material inside the giant planet to make 318 Earths. Scientists did not know whether at its very center it might have a small solid core or not. Heat from within rises and various molecules move up and down, producing complex bands, zones, and storms in the upper atmosphere.
Additional Juno discoveries include that Jupiter has a bigger core than expected, but that it has a fuzzy-looking structure, as if it were not sharply defined. The giant magnet inside Jupiter that surrounds it with the most powerful magnetic zone of any planet was also found to be stronger than anticipated.
Furthermore, the northern and southern lights on Jupiter are excited not only by charged particles captured from space (as we have on Earth) but also, unexpectedly, from charged particles coming from inside Jupiter.
As usual, when we get better instruments focused on a world or process in astronomy, we find that some of our old assumptions or ideas will need to be revised. That's what makes astronomy so much fun.

Below is an image showing 14 days of the Juno spacecraft approaching and then moving further away from Jupiter's cloudy atmosphere. (Click on it to make it bigger.)

Sunday, May 14, 2017

A Weird-looking Moon in a Gap in Saturn's Rings

Since 2004, the sophisticated Cassini spacecraft has been orbiting Saturn, sending back remarkable pictures of the planet, its rings, and its moons.   Now, with its fuel running out, the little spacecraft is being directed closer to Saturn’s rings, to get us even better views of this spectacular region (before Cassini does a Kamikaze dive into Saturn Sept. 15th.)

The image above is a fantastic close-up of one of the strangest moons we have ever seen.  The small moon Pan orbits inside the Encke Gap, an emptier region in Saturn’s bright A ring (Saturn’s different rings are given letter names.)  Pan looks like a “flying saucer” – with a set of high ridges around its equator.  It's about 22 miles across at its widest point.

Astronomers think that Pan formed inside Saturn’s ring and, as it grew, its gravity helped clear out the material in the gap which it now rules.  But there was enough material still in the flat ring neighborhood that it fell onto Pan’s equator and made the giant ridges that make Pan so distinctive.

Over the next few months, as scientist program Cassini to dive again and again into the space between Saturn’s and its rings, we will continue to get better images of “things in the rings” (sounds like Dr. Seuss) than we ever have before.  It’s a fitting finale for a spectacular space mission.

The image below shows you the neighborhood.  You can see Pan, its shadow, the Encke gap, and the A ring.