10 years after NASA launched its Juno mission to Jupiter, these are its most stunning images of the gas giant

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An illustration of NASA’s Juno spacecraft flying above the clouds of Jupiter.

  • NASA’s Juno spacecraft has been orbiting Jupiter and taking jaw-dropping photos of the gas giant since 2016.
  • Juno has flown past Jupiter’s polar cyclones, anticyclones, auroras, the Great Red Spot, and enormous moons.
  • Citizen scientists touch up Juno’s raw images to highlight storms and clouds in stunning color. These pictures reveal the tumultuous bands of the planet’s atmosphere, from its equator to each pole.
  • The mission has also collected data that’s revealing how Jupiter has evolved over time. That history is critical to understanding the gas giants that orbit other stars.
  • Juno’s data has revealed the workings of Jupiter’s X-ray auroras, the depth of its Great Red Spot, and the immense power of its magnetic field.
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NASA’s Juno mission has been orbiting Jupiter and snapping stunning photos for more than five years.

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Jupiter, as photographed by the Juno spacecraft, in September 2017.

The spacecraft launched more than 10 years ago, on August 5, 2011. As it sped towards Jupiter, it snapped a goodbye photo of Earth, proving that its cameras were ready for space.

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The Juno spacecraft’s JunoCam caught this image of Earth as it sped past on October 9, 2011, to get a gravitational boost towards Jupiter.

Juno finally reached the giant, gaseous planet in 2016. It fell into Jupiter’s orbit that July.

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Juno snapped this photo of a “Jupiterrise” on one of its first flybys in 2016.

Since launch, the probe has traveled more than 1 billion miles, and its JunoCam instrument has taken more than 19,800 photos.

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Clouds swirl around each other on Jupiter.

Juno beams the raw data to Earth as black-and-white photo layers that represent red, blue, and green.

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A raw image of Jupiter in blue, green, and red, captured August 6, 2021.

Then citizen scientists merge the layers and process them to make colorful portraits. They enhance the colors to highlight different bands of Jupiter’s atmosphere, storms, and clouds.

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Jupiter’s reddish-orange North North Temperate Belt, with two gray-colored anticyclones, May 23, 2018.

Juno’s orbit takes it far from Jupiter, then swings it back towards the planet for close flybys. In those flybys, the probe has flown by Jupiter’s north pole, where eight storms rage around a giant, Earth-sized cyclone at the center.

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A composite infrared image from the Juno spacecraft shows cyclones at Jupiter’s north pole, February 2, 2017.

The planet’s south pole is no less stunning. Juno gave us the first close-up pictures ever taken of Jupiter’s poles.

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A photo of Jupiter’s south pole, as seen by NASA’s Juno spacecraft.

Seen together, the series of photos that Juno snaps during each flyby enables image processors – like Seán Doran, who created this composite – to show the spacecraft’s journey.

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Images from Juno’s April 2018 flyby, approaching Jupiter.

The successive images show Juno zipping from one pole to the other in just a few hours, approaching Jupiter and then flying away.

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Images from Juno’s April 2018 flyby, leaving Jupiter.

But Juno’s mission isn’t about pretty pictures. It’s looking for clues about how Jupiter formed and how it evolved over time.

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That history can help scientists learn about the beginnings of our solar system and give clues about Jupiter-like gas giants orbiting other stars.

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Jupiter’s swirling clouds.

Juno measured Jupiter’s magnetic field for the first time, finding it far more powerful than scientists expected. Jupiter’s magnetic field is 10 times more powerful than the strongest field on Earth.

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A mass of swirling clouds on Jupiter.

A year after its arrival, Juno zipped past Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, a raging storm near the planet’s equator. It discovered that this cyclone goes 200 miles deep – that’s 50 to 100 times as deep as Earth’s oceans.

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Scientists animated this 2017 Juno image of the Great Red Spot based on velocity data from the spacecraft and models of the storm’s winds.

Cyclones spin in the same direction as the planet, but anticyclones spin in the opposite direction. Both are found all over Jupiter, in varying sizes.

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A white anticyclone swirls on Jupiter’s surface on April 1, 2018.

Juno has also spotted the aurora ribboning across Jupiter’s south pole – like auroras on Earth, but hundreds of times more powerful. Unlike other planets’ auroras, Jupiter’s emit powerful X-rays.

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Jupiter’s southern aurora in infrared, August 27, 2016.

In June, the spacecraft flew past Jupiter’s icy satellite Ganymede, the largest moon in the solar system. Scientists think that Ganymede harbors an ocean beneath its surface, which means it could harbor life.

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This image of Ganymede was obtained by the JunoCam imager during Juno’s June 7, 2021, flyby of the icy moon.

Citizen scientist Gerald Eichstädt compiled Juno’s imagery into a time-lapse video of its June flyby, which took the spacecraft past Jupiter and Ganymede.

The video lasts three minutes and 30 seconds, but in reality, it took Juno nearly 15 hours to travel the 735,000 miles between Ganymede and Jupiter, then about three additional hours to travel between Jupiter’s poles.

Juno has also captured the shadow of Jupiter’s volcanically active moon, Io, passing between the planet and the sun. Altogether, Jupiter has 79 moons.

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Jupiter’s volcanically active moon Io casts its shadow on the planet, September 11, 2019.

Juno was originally set to push itself to a fiery death in Jupiter’s atmosphere this July, but NASA extended its mission through September 2025. It now plans to zip past the moons Ganymede, Io, and Europa.

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A cyclonic storm captured during Juno’s 23rd flyby of Jupiter, November 3, 2019.

In the process, Juno is sure to beam back more photos of the largest planet in our solar system.

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Colorful swirling cloud belts in Jupiter’s southern hemisphere, December 16, 2017.

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Stunning video captures a rare Jupiter triple-eclipse: 3 large moons casting their shadows over the planet

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Left to right: Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto cross in front of Jupiter, August 15, 2021.

Jupiter and its largest satellites recently performed a rare dance.

Three of the planet’s enormous moons – Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto – all paraded across Jupiter’s swirling surface at once, casting their shadows on the clouds below.

Christopher Go, an amateur astronomer in the Philippines, captured images of the spectacle around midnight on August 15. Then Kunio Sayanagi, a planetary scientist at Hampton University, compiled them into the below video.

jupiter rotating as three moons pass in front of it casting shadows on jupiter

Each second of the video represents 30 minutes of real time.

“I already knew what was going to happen, but seeing it live was surreal,” Go told Insider.

In a blog post, he said he’d been waiting for this “grand slam event” all year.

From the surface of Jupiter, the area that falls in shadows of these moons would see a solar eclipse. But from Earth, this occurrence is called a “transit,” since as the moons pass between us and Jupiter, they’re transiting the giant planet. Transits are common on Jupiter – several hundred happen each year. But it’s rare for three to occur at once. The last time a triple transit happened was in 2015, according to Sayanagi, and the next one won’t happen again until 2032.

“This is a very difficult data to capture,” Sayanagi told Insider. “I am convinced that this is the best movie ever made of Jupiter’s triple transit event.”

Go was especially lucky to capture this footage, since it’s the middle of monsoon season in the Philippines. It rained every night the week of the triple transit, but the skies cleared just in time for Go to prepare his telescope and watch the Jovian trio parade across the planet’s bands.

One moon briefly eclipses the other

There’s more to this video than the triple transit, though. At the beginning, the yellow-hued moon Io makes a brief appearance as it zips behind Jupiter. Then about halfway through, something more unusual happens: Europa passes between Ganymede and Jupiter.

Europa, a small icy world with an ocean deep below its surface, briefly disappears behind the larger Ganymede. As it reemerges, Ganymede’s shadow is visibly eclipsing the little moon.

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Europa (right) emerges from behind Ganymede (left) with the larger moon’s shadow eclipsing it.

“That was really exciting was to see the shadow of Ganymede split,” Go said. “Half on Europa and the other half on the surface of Jupiter.”

Ganymede is the largest moon in the solar system and has its own hidden ocean, just like Europa. Many scientists think these moons’ subsurface oceans could host alien life.

Galileo Galilei first observed the four moons in this video – Europa, Ganymede, Callisto, and Io – in 1610. It was the first time anybody had documented objects orbiting another planet. That got Galileo thinking that maybe Earth wasn’t the center of the universe.

“We all know that today, but even then, seeing the moons dance around Jupiter casting shadows and eclipsing each other is awe-inspiring,” Sayanagi said.

In total, scientists think Jupiter has 79 moons, but the rest of them are much smaller than the four Galilean moons.

Europa
Europa, as imaged by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft in the late 1990s.

Even without its moons, Jupiter’s colorful clouds and raging storms make for a stunning astronomical sight.

“I have been observing Jupiter whenever I can since 2003,” said Go, who runs a furniture company with his wife. “Jupiter is so dynamic that you can see changes everyday.”

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Here’s what would happen to life on Earth if the moon disappeared

  • Each year, the moon drifts an estimated 1.5 inches further away from Earth.
  • Turns out, the moon isn’t just a beacon of light in the night sky; its existence is crucial to the delicate balancing act that makes life on Earth possible.
  • The moon has the largest influence on Earth’s tides and, without it, high and low tides would shrink by an estimated 75%.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: Our moon is on the move. Each year, it drifts an estimated 1.5 inches further away from Earth. And in the process, Earth’s rotation is actually slowing down. What if one night, the moon simply disappeared? Would we miss it?

A full moon is on average 14,000 times brighter than the next brightest night-sky object, Venus. So without it, every night would be as dark as a new moon. And star gazing would be spectacular.

But by the next morning, you’d begin to realize just how important the moon is for life on Earth. To start, between the sun, Earth’s rotation, and the moon, the moon has the largest influence on Earth’s tides.

Without it, high and low tides would shrink by an estimated 75%. This would jeopardize the lives of many types of crabs, mussels, and sea snails that live in tidal zones and disrupt the diets of larger animals who rely on them for food, threatening entire coastal ecosystems in the process. Within a few decades, we would start to see mass population declines in the sea and on land.

One of the largest spawning events in the world occurs in the Great Barrier Reef. Each November in the days following the light of a full moon, coral colonies across the reef – spanning an area larger than the state of New Mexico – release millions of egg and sperm sacs within nearly minutes of one another. Scientists are certain that the full moon plays a role in the timing, but exactly how remains a mystery.

On land, animals like these Red Crabs also use lunar cues to reproduce. After living most of their lives in the mountains, millions of adult crabs migrate down to shore. And then, only during the last quarter of the moon, females release their eggs into the sea.

Now, the moon may not hold as much sway over human reproduction. But without it, something else we care equally about would change – the weather. Tides and tidal currents help mix cold arctic waters with warmer waters in the tropics. This balances temperatures and stabilizes the climate worldwide. Without the moon, weather forecasts would be practically impossible. The average difference between the hottest and coldest places on Earth could grow to life-threatening extremes.

But none of this compares to the biggest change that we would have coming over the next millennia. Right now, Earth tilts on its axis at 23.5º mostly due to the moon’s gravity. If the moon disappeared, Earth’s axis would wobble between anywhere from 10 to 45º.

Some experts estimate that Jupiter could help keep Earth’s tilt from reeling completely out of control. But even just an extra 10º tilt could wreak havoc on the climate and seasons.
In the past, Earth’s tilt has changed by about 1-2º, which scientists think could have caused Ice Ages in the past. It’s hard to know what a 10º or 45º tilt would do but probably nothing good for most life on Earth.

The moon isn’t just imperative for life on Earth today. Experts believe that it may also have played a key role in the formation of life more than 3.5 billion years ago. Turns out, the moon isn’t just a beacon of light in the night sky. Its existence is crucial to the delicate balancing act that makes life here possible.

Video courtesy of Instagram/@Norazian, Instagram/faulkner_photography

EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in March 2018.

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Europe is sending a probe to Venus, teaming up with NASA to rocket 3 missions to the planet in the next 15 years

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An illustration of the EnVision spacecraft with Earth (left) and Venus (right).

After decades of gazing longingly at Mars, the world’s space agencies are finally turning back to look at Venus.

Last week NASA announced that it had picked two new missions to go to Venus – one, called VERITAS, to orbit the planet and another, called DAVINCI+, to plunge to its surface. Now the European Space Agency (ESA) is throwing its hat in the ring.

The ESA revealed Thursday that it’s sending its own probe to Venus – an orbiter called EnVision. The mission aims to study how the planet’s atmosphere, surface, and interior interact to create the infernal pressure cooker it is today. Together, the three probes spell a renaissance in Venutian science.

“A new era in the exploration of our closest, yet wildly different, solar system neighbor awaits us,” Günther Hasinger, ESA Director of Science, said in a press release. “Together with the newly announced NASA-led Venus missions, we will have an extremely comprehensive science program at this enigmatic planet well into the next decade.”

The NASA missions are set to launch between 2028 and 2030, and the ESA probe sometime in the early 2030s.

Venus’ climate became hellish long ago, but it may have hosted life

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A composite image of Venus from NASA’s Magellan spacecraft and Pioneer Venus Orbiter.

Venus used to be a lot like Earth. The two planets are about the same size, and they’re made of the same material. Scientists think Venus could have even had oceans in the distant past.

But something happened that drastically changed Venus’ climate. Today it’s the hottest planet in our solar system, thick with yellow, heat-trapping clouds of sulfuric acid. Its average surface temperature is a blistering 880 degrees Fahrenheit (471 degrees Celsius) – hot enough to melt lead – and its crushing air pressure is more than 90 times that of Earth’s.

The upcoming missions could help scientists understand how Venus became such an extreme environment, whether it was hospitable to life, and whether or not its volcanoes are still erupting.

The world’s interest in Venus was rekindled in September, when a new study suggested the planet’s clouds could harbor microbial aliens.

That’s because researchers found traces of phosphine – a gas typically produced by microbes on Earth – in the upper reaches of Venus’ clouds. However, a follow-up study suggested those trace elements weren’t phosphine, but rather sulfur dioxide, casting doubt on the idea that Venus could be habitable.

These new missions could help settle that debate.

“It is astounding how little we know about Venus, but the combined results of these missions will tell us about the planet from the clouds in its sky through the volcanoes on its surface, all the way down to its very core,” Tom Wagner, a NASA Discovery Program scientist, said in a statement about the NASA missions. “It will be as if we have rediscovered the planet.”

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NASA’s Juno probe at Jupiter beamed back close-up photos of the planet’s largest moon, Ganymede, for the first time in 2 decades

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The Juno spacecraft (left) flew past Ganymede (right) on Monday.

Grey, heavily cratered, and peering out from the black of space, Ganymede looks a lot like our moon. But the icy rock is more than 400 million miles away – it’s the largest moon in the solar system, and it circles Jupiter.

NASA’s Juno spacecraft has been rocketing around Jupiter since 2016, but on Monday, it zipped past Ganymede, coming within 645 miles of the moon. No spacecraft had gotten that close in more than two decades – the last approach was NASA’s Galileo spacecraft in 2000.

In just 25 minutes, Ganymede went from being a distant point of light from Juno’s vantage point to a looming, round disk, then back to a point of light. It was just enough time for the probe to snap five photos.

NASA released the first two images on Tuesday; they’re the most detailed snapshots ever captured of the gargantuan moon.

“This is the closest any spacecraft has come to this mammoth moon in a generation,” Scott Bolton, who leads the Juno spacecraft team, said in NASA’s press release. “We are going to take our time before we draw any scientific conclusions, but until then we can simply marvel at this celestial wonder – the only moon in our solar system bigger than the planet Mercury.”

Scientists believe that Ganymede may host an ocean of salty water 500 miles beneath its icy shell – which would hold more water than Earth does. It’s also the only moon in the solar system with its own magnetic field, which creates an aurora at its poles. Scientists hope the Juno flyby will help them learn more about both Ganymede’s ice shell and its magnetic field.

The first Juno image, below, captures almost an entire side of the ice-encrusted moon. Each pixel covers about 0.6 miles (1 kilometer).

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This image of Ganymede was obtained by the JunoCam imager during Juno’s June 7, 2021 flyby of the icy moon.

This image is just from the Juno camera’s green-light filter. In the coming days, NASA expects to receive more images from the spacecraft, including those captured with its red- and blue-light filters. That will allow the agency to create a colorful portrait of Ganymede.

Juno’s black-and-white navigation camera also snapped a photo, below, of Ganymede’s dark side.

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This image of the dark side of Ganymede was obtained by Juno’s Stellar Reference Unit navigation camera during its June 7, 2021 flyby.

It’s visible thanks to light scattered from Jupiter.

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An astronomer’s colorful animation shows how Saturn’s disappearing rings act like a ‘mini solar system’

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Saturn’s rings, imaged based on radio data from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. Green indicates regions with particles smaller than 5 centimeters; purple is where no particles are that small. The white area is so dense that it blocked radio signals.

  • Saturn’s seven icy rings each spin at their own speed, behaving like a “mini solar system.”
  • Planetary scientist James O’Donoghue made a beautifully simple animation to show how it works.
  • But the rings are temporary: Saturn is slowly swallowing them, according to O’Donoghue’s research.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

If star-hopping aliens ever visited our solar system, Saturn is probably the planet they’d remember.

The seven giant rings circling its equator make Saturn the most distinct planet orbiting the sun. It may not be obvious in images of the hula-hoop planet, but the ice and rock chunks that make up those rings are circling Saturn at rates nearly 70 times the speed of sound. What’s more, each ring is moving at its own pace.

“In a way, the ring system is like a mini solar system,” James O’Donoghue, a planetary scientist at Japan’s space agency, JAXA, told Insider. “Objects close to Saturn orbit faster otherwise they would fall in, while objects far away can afford to go slower. This is the same for planets.”

In his free time, O’Donoghue makes animations about physics and the solar system. Some of his others have demonstrated that there’s no “dark side” of the moon, the true center of the solar system isn’t the sun, and Earth has two types of day.

When he put his skills to work to depict Saturn’s rings, O’Donoghue created an animation (below) that shows how the each ring moves through its own motions in a beautiful, circular dance.

In the animation, the line labeled “synchronous orbit” is synced up with the spin of Saturn itself, so it shows which parts of the rings you would see over time if you stood at that spot on the planet.

Saturn’s slowest, outermost ring spins at about 37,000 mph (16.4 kilometers per second) – slower than the rotation of Saturn itself. The innermost chunks of ice and rock shoot through space at about 52,000 mph (23.2 kilometers per second).

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An illustration of Saturn’s rings up close.

Up close, Saturn’s rings aren’t as chaotic as their speeds might make them seem. According to O’Donoghue, grains of ice on neighboring tracks are only moving at a few centimeters per minute relative to each other.

“That speed is like walking one step every 30 minutes, or similar to rush hour traffic,” he said on Twitter. “So collisions aren’t very dramatic.”

Saturn is slowly swallowing its rings

In addition to being incredibly fast-moving, Saturn’s rings are very long and thin. If you unfurled them – as O’Donoghue did in the image below – all the planets would fit comfortably within their length.

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But in total, the rings have just 1/5,000th the mass of our moon.

“In other words, our moon could be used to make 5,000 Saturn ring systems,” O’Donoghue told Insider. “This highlights how extremely thin and fragile the rings of Saturn are.”

This fragility is a subject of O’Donoghue’s scientific research. In studying Saturn’s upper atmosphere, he and his colleagues found that the rings are slowly disappearing. Thousands of kilograms of ring material rain onto the planet every second. At that rate, the rings shouldn’t last more than 300 million years in their current “full” form, he said.

“Saturn’s ring system is not exactly stable, appearing to be more like a temporary debris field of some ancient moon or comet which got too close and broke apart, rather than a permanent feature,” O’Donoghue added. “We can count ourselves lucky we live in a time when Saturn’s rings have such an enormous presence in the solar system.”

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An astronomer’s animation shows how Earth and the moon both orbit a spot 3,000 miles from the true center of the planet

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The Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) captured a view of the moon as it passed between the spacecraft and Earth.

The moon orbits Earth – right? The answer is actually a little more complicated than that.

The moon is circling a point about 3,000 miles from our planet’s center, just below its surface. Earth is wobbling around that point, too, making its own circles.

That spot is the Earth-moon system’s center of mass, known as the barycenter. It’s the point of an object (or system of them) at which it can be balanced perfectly, with the mass distributed evenly on all sides.

The Earth-moon barycenter doesn’t line up exactly with our planet’s center. Instead, it’s “always just below Earth’s surface,” as James O’Donoghue, a planetary scientist at the Japanese space agency (JAXA), explained on Twitter.

It’s hard to imagine what that looks like without seeing it for yourself. So O’Donoghue made an animation to demonstrate what’s going on. It shows how Earth and the moon will move over the next three years.

The distance between Earth and the moon is not to scale in the animation, but O’Donoghue used NASA data, so the positions over time are accurate.

“You can pause the animation on the present date to figure out where the Earth and moon physically are right now,” O’Donoghue said.

Every planetary system – including the star or planet that appears to be at the center – orbits an invisible point like this one. Our solar system’s barycenter is sometimes inside the sun, sometimes outside of it. Barycenters can help astronomers find hidden planets circling other stars: A star’s wobbling motion allows scientists to calculate mass they can’t see in a given system.

O’Donoghue made a similar animation of Pluto and its moon, Charon. In this system, the barycenter is always outside of Pluto.

That’s because Charon’s mass is not that much smaller than Pluto’s, so the system’s mass is more evenly distributed than Earth and our moon.

Because the barycenter is outside of Pluto, O’Donoghue said, you could actually consider this to be a “double (dwarf-)planet system” rather than a dwarf planet and its moon.

In his free time, O’Donoghue has also made animations to explain why leap years are necessary, why you’ve probably never seen a model of the solar system to scale, and how incredibly slow the speed of light is.

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What would happen if humans tried to land on Jupiter

  • Jupiter is made of mostly hydrogen and helium gas.
  • If you tried to land on Jupiter, it would be a bad idea.
  • You’d face extremely hot temperatures and you’d free-float in mid-Jupiter with no way of escaping.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: The best way to explore a new world is to land on it. That’s why humans have sent spacecraft to the Moon, Venus, Mars, Saturn’s moon, Titan, and more.

But there are a few places in the solar system we will never understand as well as we’d like. One of them is Jupiter.

Jupiter is made of mostly hydrogen and helium gas. So, trying to land on it would be like trying to land on a cloud here on Earth. There’s no outer crust to break your fall on Jupiter. Just an endless stretch of atmosphere.

The big question, then, is: Could you fall through one end of Jupiter and out the other? It turns out, you wouldn’t even make it halfway. Here’s what would happen if you tried to land on Jupiter.

*It’s important to note that we feature the Lunar Lander for the first half of the descent. In reality, the Lunar Lander is relatively delicate compared to, say, NASA’s Orion spacecraft. Therefore, the Lunar Lander would not be used for a mission to land on any world that contains an atmosphere, including Jupiter. However, any spacecraft, no matter how robust, would not survive for long in Jupiter, so the Lunar Lander is as good of a choice as any for this hypothetical scenario. 

First things first, Jupiter’s atmosphere has no oxygen. So make sure you bring plenty with you to breathe. The next problem is the scorching temperatures. So pack an air conditioner. Now, you’re ready for a journey of epic proportions.

For scale, here’s how many Earths you could stack from Jupiter’s center. As you enter the top of the atmosphere, you’re be traveling at 110,000 mph under the pull of Jupiter’s gravity.

But brace yourself. You’ll quickly hit the denser atmosphere below, which will hit you like a wall. It won’t be enough to stop you, though.

After about 3 minutes you’ll reach the cloud tops 155 miles down. Here, you’ll experience the full brunt of Jupiter’s rotation. Jupiter is the fastest rotating planet in our solar system. One day lasts about 9.5 Earth hours. This creates powerful winds that can whip around the planet at more than 300 mph.

About 75 miles below the clouds, you reach the limit of human exploration. The Galileo probe made it this far when it dove into Jupiter’s atmosphere in 1995. It only lasted 58 minutes before losing contact and was eventually destroyed by the crushing pressures.

Down here, the pressure is nearly 100 times what it is at Earth’s surface.  And you won’t be able to see anything, so you’ll have to rely on instruments to explore your surroundings.

By 430 miles down, the pressure is 1,150 times higher. You might survive down here if you were in a spacecraft built like the Trieste submarine – the deepest diving submarine on Earth. Any deeper and the pressure and temperature will be too great for a spacecraft to endure.

However, let’s say you could find a way to descend even farther. You will uncover some of Jupiter’s grandest mysteries. But, sadly, you’ll have no way to tell anyone. Jupiter’s deep atmosphere absorbs radio waves, so you’ll be shut off from the outside world- unable to communicate.

Once you’ve reached 2,500 miles down, the temperature is 6,100 ºF.  That’s hot enough to melt tungsten, the metal with the highest melting point in the Universe. At this point, you will have been falling for at least 12 hours. And you won’t even be halfway through.

At 13,000 miles down, you reach Jupiter’s innermost layer. Here the pressure is 2 million times stronger than at Earth’s surface. And the temperature is hotter than the surface of the sun. These conditions are so extreme they change the chemistry of the hydrogen around you. Hydrogen molecules are forced so close together that their electrons break lose, forming an unusual substance called metallic hydrogen. Metallic hydrogen is highly reflective. So, if you tried using lights to see down here it would be impossible.

And it’s as dense as a rock. So, as you travel deeper, the buoyancy force from the metallic hydrogen counteracts gravity’s downward pull.  Eventually, that buoyancy will shoot you back up until gravity pulls you back down, sort of like a yo-yo. And when those two forces equal, you’ll be left free-floating in mid-Jupiter, unable to move up or down, and no way to escape!

Suffice it say, trying to land on Jupiter is a bad idea. We may never see what’s beneath those majestic clouds. But we can still study and admire this mysterious planet from afar.

 

A special thanks to Kunio Sayanagi at Hampton University, for his help with this video.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in February 2018.

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China’s new Mars probe took its first photo of the red planet as the mission prepares to make history

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A black-and-white image of Mars taken by China’s Tianwen-1 probe, released by China on February 5, 2021.

China’s first interplanetary probe is now so close to Mars that its camera can make out craters across the red planet’s surface.

The Tianwen-1 spacecraft, a suite of robots launched by the China National Space Administration (CNSA) in July, has spent the last six months speeding through space. At just 2.2 million kilometers (1.4 million miles) from its destination, the probe beamed back its very first photo: a black-and-white snapshot of Mars.

The CNSA released the picture on Friday. In a press release, the agency said that the probe had fired an engine as part of its fourth “orbital correction,” or adjustment of its path through space. Now Martian gravity should pull the mission into just the right orbit around the planet.

The five-ton probe is set to carry out a braking operation to slow its high-speed spaceflight and slip into orbit around Mars on February 10. Following that, the spacecraft will spend a couple months surveying a landing site at Utopia Planitia, a vast field of ancient volcanic rock.

The orbiter is supposed to drop a lander-rover combo to the planet’s surface in May, the CNSA said. If the rocket-powered descent goes smoothly, the lander will deploy a two-track ramp  for the rover to roll onto Martian soil. The rover’s radar system will help Chinese researchers seek out underground pockets of liquid water. (The orbiter, meanwhile, will continue circling the red planet and relaying data to Earth.)

Such ancient water reservoirs could be remnants of a time billions of years ago when Mars flowed with rivers, courtesy of a much thicker and protective atmosphere than exists today. During this era, Mars somewhat resembled Earth, and scientists think it may have hosted alien microbial life. Any underground pockets of water, shielded from the sun’s unfiltered radiation and the vacuum of space, might still harbor such species, if they exist.

If successful, Tianwen-1 will be the first Mars mission to send a spacecraft into orbit, drop a landing platform, and deploy a rover all in one expedition. It will also mark China’s first landing on another planet and help the nation prepare a future mission that might return a Martian rock or dirt sample to Earth in the late 2020s.

china mars global remote sensing and small rover hx 1 martian mission illustration rendering cas xinhua
An illustration of China’s planned Mars Global Remote Sensing Orbiter and Small Rover mission, or HX-1. Here a rover is shown leaving a lander to explore the Martian surface.

As of Friday, the CNSA said Tianwen-1 is just about 1.1 million kilometers (680,000 miles) from its destination.

Two other missions which launched around the same time as Tianwen-1 – NASA’s Perseverance rover and the United Arab Emirates’ Hope probe – are also arriving at Mars in the next two weeks. All three missions are taking advantage of a window when Mars passes close to Earth, decreasing travel time and cost.

China attempted to send an orbiter to Mars in 2011, but the Russian spacecraft that was meant to carry it there stalled in Earth’s orbit and never left.

Tianwen-1 is the closest China has ever gotten to another planet. With luck – and the right engineering to weather a harrowing “seven minutes of terror” as it plunges toward Mars – it will reach the surface.

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NASA’s attempt to burrow into Mars met 2 insurmountable obstacles: cement-like soil and an unexpected energy shortage

InSight mars lander
An artist illustration of the InSight lander on Mars, with its “mole” burrowed deep in the soil.

NASA sent its InSight lander to Mars with an ambitious mission: to study the planet’s deep internal structure. A crucial piece of that effort – the “mole” – has failed despite two years of attempts to salvage it.

The mole is a revolutionary heat probe designed to burrow 16 feet into the Martian soil and take the planet’s temperature. Its measurements would have revealed clues about how the planet formed and has changed over the last 4.6 billion years – a history that would help scientists track down Martian water, and possibly life.

But the mole has made little progress in the unexpectedly thick soil. Now the InSight team must ration the lander’s solar power. NASA announced Thursday that the mole won’t be able to dig its hole.

mars insight mole heat probe skitch
The mole, halfway popped out of its hole, on October 26, 2019.

“It’s a bit of a personal tragedy,” Sue Smrekar, a lead scientist on the InSight team who has spent 10 years working on the mole, told Insider. “Everyone tried as hard as they could make it work. So I can’t ask for anything more than that.”

No other Mars mission in NASA’s foreseeable can take the internal temperature measurements for which the mole was designed.

“This has been our best attempt to get that data,” Smrekar added. “From my personal standpoint, it’s super disappointing, and scientifically it’s also a very significant loss. So it feels really like a huge letdown.”

An unexpected energy crisis

InSight lander mars
An artist’s concept shows NASA’s InSight lander with its instruments deployed on the Martian surface. The seismometer is the round device to the left of the lander.

The InSight team spent two years maneuvering the lander’s robotic arm to see if it could help the mole burrow further. The probe, a 16-inch-long pile driver, is designed to leverage the loose dirt that other Mars missions have encountered. The soil would flow around the mole’s outer hull and provide friction to keep hammering deeper.

But in February 2019, the mole found itself bouncing in place on a foundation of firm soil called “duracrust.” The next two years were spent troubleshooting, beaming new software to InSight to teach its robotic arm new maneuvers to assist the mole, and anxiously waiting for photos that might show progress.

“It’s just been a huge effort across the board, and one that we never anticipated,” Smrekar said. “We thought that we were going to punch the hole down.”

The InSight team first instructed the robotic arm to push on the mole, but that just caused it to pop out of the hole. Once they got the probe back in the ground, a year later, they instructed the arm to pile dirt on top of it, hoping that would provide enough friction for the probe to dig deeper.

But the mole made no progress with 500 hammer strokes last Saturday. The top of it was just 2 or 3 centimeters below the surface.

By then, InSight’s problems were compounding. Unlike other sites where NASA has sent rovers and landers, the open plain where InSight sits wasn’t having powerful gusts of wind. Smrekar calls such gusts “cleaning events,” since they blow the planet’s pervasive red dust off any robots in the area. Without them, InSight’s solar panels have accumulated a significant layer of dust.

mars insight lander nasa solar panels dust
The InSight lander’s camera took this photo on July 18, 2020, showing one of its solar-panel arrays covered in dust.

At the same time, the seasons were changing and InSight’s home on a flat plain near Mars’ equator was getting colder. In the chill, InSight will require more energy just to stay functional, even while its solar panels are absorbing less sunlight than they should.

“Power is decreasing and so we’re coming up on a time period where, for probably two or three months, we’re probably going to have to stand down from doing instrument operations for awhile and just kind of go into survival mode until it gets warmer on Mars,” Smrekar said.

Mars landing sites
The plain where InSight landed has presented challenges that other Mars missions didn’t face.

With this new time constraint, Saturday’s hammering attempt was the mole’s last chance to burrow.

Over the next two years, InSight will still listen for quakes on Mars and collect data on the planet’s rumblings with its seismometer. This can provide some insight about the planet’s interior. Already, Mars quakes have revealed that the Martian crust is drier and more broken up than scientists had thought ⁠- more like the moon than like Earth.

A planet’s internal temperature reveals its history

If the mole had hammered down to 16 feet below, it would have measured temperatures all the way down its hole. That would allow scientists to calculate how much heat is leaving Mars – a metric called “heat flow.”

“It’s a single number, the heat flow, but it has ramifications for all kinds of aspects of understanding Mars,” Smrekar said.

Heat leaving a planet is, in part, warmth left over from its formation, but it also comes from decaying radioactive elements. Measuring the heat flow would tell scientists how much radioactive material is inside the Martian crust – the outer layer of the planet – versus the mantle beneath.

mars internal inner structure core mantle crust
An artist’s rendition of the inner structure of Mars: the topmost layer (crust), mantle, and solid inner core.

That would reveal not only how material was distributed when the planet formed (and whether it’s made of the same stuff as Earth), but also how the planet’s internal structure has changed over time.

“That goes back to understanding the early evolution of Mars, that time period when there was a lot of liquid water on the surface,” Smrekar said.

A higher concentration of radioactive material in the mantle would make that layer more active. More radioactive material in the crust could keep the planet’s upper layers warm.

Heat flow could also indicate how deep you’d have to drill into Mars to reach liquid water today. Underground water on the planet could still host microbial life. Future humans traveling to Mars will likely need to harvest water there.

Now there is no possibility of measuring the planet’s heat flow in the foreseeable future.

“I was hoping to get the data and be able to understand what that means for Mars,” Smrekar said.

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