Bad Astronomy

New Horizons at Jupiter

PSA: Hey, don’t forget to register to win the Sam Neill DVDs!

New Horizons is one of the fastest probes ever launched by humans. Even so, it’ll take another eight years to get to Pluto, its primary target. But it would take longer if it didn’t steal energy from Jupiter in a process called a gravity assist (it catches up to Jupiter from behind, if you will, and absorbs some of Jupiter’s orbital momentum, accelerating the probe a lot and slowing Jupiter an eensy weensy bit).


But the folks who run the NH program aren’t ones to let an opportunity pass – or to pass an opportunity. They aimed NH’s very sophisticated cameras at the monster planet and took a set of incredible images (there are 4 gigabytes of images in all, and 70% have been sent back so far).


There were many purposes for getting the images. There are still lots of things we don’t understand about Jupiter, of course, so more data always help. Things change there all the time, so getting images at any time is good. Also, it helps to calibrate the cameras on New Horizons. I spent many years calibrating instruments on board Hubble, and so I know that if you don’t understand how your equipment works, you can’t get any good information out of them.


But they also took pictures because they’re pretty. Check this out:

That’s the moon Europa rising over Jupiter’s limb. The planners took that picture not because they could get good science, but because they knew it would be stunning. Stanley Kubrick couldn’t have done better!

But like I said, things change. Io is a volcanic moon, constantly erupting as its insides are churned up by tides from the other moons. When NH passed, the volcano Tvashtar was spewing sulphur into the sky:


And finally, how can I ignore my own namesake, Oval BA, Red Spot Junior? The last image below is highest resolution color image ever taken of it.

For a sense of scale, the Earth would fit easily inside the frame of this picture. Jupiter does things BIG.

There are tons more images on the New Horizons site, and they are all incredible, and all worth looking at. Man, just 8 more years. I can’t wait!