Friday, May 18, 2007

Postcards from Jupiter

I've had this picture (on the left) as my desktop for the last week or so. At first glance it doesn't look like much, black and white, moon rising. Nice, but not too attention grabbing.

It gains a little more significance however when you're told that this is an actual photo of Europa, rising over Jupiter, taken two months ago.

This photo was taken on February 28th by the New Horizons spacecraft, which just passed through Jupiter's system on it's way out to Pluto.

It blows me away that NASA doesn't get any decent headlines these days, that the media would rather play "Paris Hilton Goes to Jail" than follow the astounding things that we're doing in space. Let me recap this particular mission:

- NASA Engineers basically built a robotic, solar-powered telescopic camera, designed to operate in deep space.
- They stuck it on an Atlas V rocket and blasted it into space in 2006.
- They put it on a trajectory to slingshot around Jupiter on it's way out to Pluto, a journey of about three billion miles.
- A year or so after launch, it just passed Jupiter (approximately 500 million miles away), travelling at 47,000 miles per hour. This slingshot maneuver sped up the craft, saving about three years travel time.
- Said spacecraft took this picture of Europa rising over Jupiter, then broadcast it back towards the earth.
- NASA picked the picture up from a satellite dish somewhere, and stuck it on their web server.
- I downloaded it, and here I am talking about it.
- We should expect more photos, of Pluto, in about eight years.

If you want to see more astounding photos from this mission, go here.

My other favorite is an animated photo of Jupiter's moon IO and the 180-mile-high volcanic plume from its volcano Tvashtar.

New Horizons is by no means the first. By way of a little history, NASA's first spacecraft to do this, Pioneer 10 was launched in 1972. It passed Jupiter in 1973, and then headed out of the solar system. The last signals were received from it in 2003, when it had travelled about 7.5 billion miles.

It's now about 8 billion miles away, travelling at 27,000 miles per hour. It should reach the Aldebaran solar system in about two million years.

Each one of these missions enables us to learn incredible things about our solar system, and raises more questions for future missions to investigate.