Fly Over Jupiter

Take a series of photos from the Juno spacecraft and just project them in sequence to make a timelapse movie of the spacecraft swinging past Jupiter. Sounds easy… Right?

Not easy at all. As the spacecraft orbited past the planet the perspective changes rapidly. To make a natural seeming animation much more would have to be done. Mathematician Gerald Eichstaedt did just that… Taking 36 images he projected each image on a mathematically modeled sphere, then panned through each image using the orbital trajectory of the spacecraft to create a view to simulate actually being there.

Further work by filmmaker Seán Doran smoothed the resulting video into an even more natural view. This created the video posted below. You can see the original video at

The result is simply stunning, take look at what it would have been like to be there as Juno swung past the planet just a few thousand miles above the cloudtops.

Jupiter: Juno Perijove 06 from Sean Doran on Vimeo.

By Jove!

Jupiter from Juno
A spectacular image taken by the Juno spacecraft just above the cloud tops of Jupiter.
Waves of clouds at 37.8 degrees latitude dominate this three-dimensional Jovian cloudscape, courtesy of NASA’s Juno spacecraft. JunoCam obtained this enhanced-color picture on May 19, 2017, at 5:50 UTC from an altitude of 5,500 miles (8,900 kilometers).
Image credit: NASA/SWRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstadt/Sean Doran

A Whole New Jupiter: First Science Results from NASA’s Juno Mission

JPL Press Release

Early science results from NASA’s Juno mission to Jupiter portray the largest planet in our solar system as a complex, gigantic, turbulent world, with Earth-sized polar cyclones, plunging storm systems that travel deep into the heart of the gas giant, and a mammoth, lumpy magnetic field that may indicate it was generated closer to the planet’s surface than previously thought.

Jupiter South Pole from Juno
This image shows Jupiter’s south pole, as seen by NASA’s Juno spacecraft from an altitude of 32,000 miles (52,000 kilometers). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Betsy Asher Hall/Gervasio Robles
“We are excited to share these early discoveries, which help us better understand what makes Jupiter so fascinating,” said Diane Brown, Juno program executive at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “It was a long trip to get to Jupiter, but these first results already demonstrate it was well worth the journey.”

Juno launched on Aug. 5, 2011, entering Jupiter’s orbit on July 4, 2016. The findings from the first data-collection pass, which flew within about 2,600 miles (4,200 kilometers) of Jupiter’s swirling cloud tops on Aug. 27, are being published this week in two papers in the journal Science, as well as 44 papers in Geophysical Research Letters.

Continue reading “A Whole New Jupiter: First Science Results from NASA’s Juno Mission”

Ceres Up Close

Dawn has been in orbit around Ceres for over a year now, having entered orbit back on March 6th, 2015. Most of the dwarf planet has been photographed and mapped in high resolution now, creating beautiful imagery that reveals a great deal of interesting terrian. As we have seen with other dwarf planets like Pluto, these little worlds are surprisingly dynamic places, hardly the dead rocks one might have expected.

The bright features in Occator crater have been revealed to be some sort of cryovolcano. While not certain, the bright is likely to be water ice, or perhaps a briny, salt and water mixture. There has even been some evidence of vapor observed over the crater, possibly from sublimating ices.

I am sure this is a large disappointment to those who claimed it was some sort of alien base. Not that this has stopped the claims, they are just more modest in size. You can find YouTube videos of folks combing through the high resolution images and claiming any little feature that is slightly regular looking is some alien artifact.

More enjoyable to watch is a JPL video pointing out the highlights of Ceres…

New Clues to Ceres’ Bright Spots and Origins

NASA/JPL press release

Ceres reveals some of its well-kept secrets in two new studies in the journal Nature, thanks to data from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft. They include highly anticipated insights about mysterious bright features found all over the dwarf planet’s surface.

Ceres Spots
This false color image from NASA’s Dawn spacecraft of Ceres’ Occator Crater shows differences in surface composition.
Credit: NASA/JPL
In one study, scientists identify this bright material as a kind of salt. The second study suggests the detection of ammonia-rich clays, raising questions about how Ceres formed.

About the Bright Spots

Ceres has more than 130 bright areas, and most of them are associated with impact craters. Study authors, led by Andreas Nathues at Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Göttingen, Germany, write that the bright material is consistent with a type of magnesium sulfate called hexahydrite. A different type of magnesium sulfate is familiar on Earth as Epsom salt.

Nathues and colleagues, using images from Dawn’s framing camera, suggest that these salt-rich areas were left behind when water-ice sublimated in the past. Impacts from asteroids would have unearthed the mixture of ice and salt, they say.

“The global nature of Ceres’ bright spots suggests that this world has a subsurface layer that contains briny water-ice,” Nathues said.

A New Look at Occator

The surface of Ceres, whose average diameter is 584 miles (940 kilometers), is generally dark — similar in brightness to fresh asphalt — study authors wrote. The bright patches that pepper the surface represent a large range of brightness, with the brightest areas reflecting about 50 percent of sunlight shining on the area. But there has not been unambiguous detection of water ice on Ceres; higher-resolution data are needed to settle this question.

Continue reading “New Clues to Ceres’ Bright Spots and Origins”

The Definitive Pluto Image

The NASA New Horizons team has released a gorgeous full disk image of Pluto. I would predict that this high resolution image will be the definitive image of Pluto for at least a century. Expect to see this image any time you run across Pluto in any media, from Wikipedia to school textbooks.

Panning across the image one can see that Pluto does feature a fair number of impact craters, more than I noted on the earlier images that often concentrated on the ice fields of the Sputnik Planum. This ice cap is startlingly smooth, with flow features visible, primarily at the margins. The ice is probably nitrogen ice as water is essentially a rock at these temperatures. Indeed much of the bedrock visible across the image is probably water ice.

The ice sheet is made up of polygons, a feature sometimes seen in ice here on Earth. For some reason the boundaries of the polygons are marked with long linear double depressions. These depressions look like 4WD roads across a desert of sand, if the vehicles had tires a mile across.

On the right side of the ice fields of Sputnik Planum there are a a large number of aeolian features, huge ridges one would suppose are aligned with the prevailing winds. Given that the image resolution is 0.8 miles per pixel these features must be miles high. These have recently been dubbed snakeskin terrain. I expect the planetary scientists will have a bit of fun trying to figure these out.

It is a beautiful image, conveying a great sense of what this dwarf planet is really like. Download the high resolution image and just wander. The larger image is bigger than WordPress will allow, use the link above to get the full size image.

NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft captured this high-resolution enhanced color view of Pluto on July 14, 2015.
NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft captured this high-resolution enhanced color view of Pluto on July 14, 2015. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

The Icy Plains of Pluto

As the New Horizons data trickles back to Earth we are being treated to ever better images of this distant dwarf planet. Soaring mountains, glaciers of nitrogen ice flowing into ice caps that cover huge areas, a hazy and layered atmosphere, Pluto has turned out to be a surprise to just about every one. Those who expected an ancient cratered terrain have been presented with a surprisingly dynamic world.

Click on the image for more information, click again for the big version to really appreciate…

New Horizons Pluto
Pluto’s Majestic Mountains, Frozen Plains and Foggy Hazes: Just 15 minutes after its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Pluto Up Close

With the New Horizons spacecraft successfully making its flyby of Pluto, we are now getting the first close up images of this distant world. The spacecraft went into radio silence for 22 hours while it maneuvered to photograph Pluto and its moons. The first signal returned was simply a full status report, and only now, a day later are we beginning to see the imagery returned. Given the 2.9 billion miles between the spacecraft and Earth, it will take about 16 months to get all of the data back.

The first images are fascinating! Eleven thousand foot high ice mountains create a rugged landscape. I find myself waiting for further images, the surface of Pluto promises to be far different than any terrain we have seen elsewhere in the solar system.

The Mountains of Pluto
New close-up images of a region near Pluto’s equator reveal a giant surprise: a range of youthful mountains rising as high as 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) above the surface of the icy body. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

New Horizons Lecture at Keck

To celebrate the arrival of the new Horizons Probe at Pluto next week the W. M. Keck Observatory is holding a special lecture.

Tantalizing signs of geology on Pluto are revealed in this image from New Horizons taken on July 9, 2015 from 3.3 million miles (5.4 million kilometers) away.  Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
Tantalizing signs of geology on Pluto are revealed in this image from New Horizons taken on July 9, 2015 from 3.3 million miles (5.4 million kilometers) away. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
NASA Spacecraft New Horizons Pluto Flyby:
Special Talk by NASA Scientist Eliot Young

Just hours before their observing run at Keck Observatory will start, NASA scientists Eliot Young and his team will give a talk in the Hualalai Conference room at Keck Observatory’s headquarters in Waimea. Join us at 7:00p to learn about the science of Pluto, the Kuiper belt, dwarf planets and more.

At 1:49am the next morning, the NASA New Horizons spacecraft is scheduled to make its closest approach to Pluto, and Young’s team will be collecting close-up data on the dwarf planet and other distant solar system objects for the first time ever.

Young is the principal scientist from the Southwest Research Institute, one of the partners involved in the building of the New Horizons craft.

The Bright Spots on Ceres

As the Dawn spacecraft settles into lower orbits around Ceres the photos of this small world are of ever better resolution. The mysterious bright spots have slowly resolved into an interesting arrangement of multiple spots. Despite many wild claims on YouTube and UFO websites of alien cities or crashed spacecraft, the spots are looking more and more like a set of ice outcroppings. They are still fascinating, if just a bit more ordinary than some would hope.

My bet? Some sort of cryovolcano.

JPL Press release

NASA’s Dawn mission captured a sequence of images, taken for navigation purposes, of dwarf planet Ceres on May 16, 2015. The image showcases the group of the brightest spots on Ceres, which continue to mystify scientists. It was taken from a distance of 4,500 miles (7,200 kilometers) and has a resolution of 2,250 feet (700 meters) per pixel.

“Dawn scientists can now conclude that the intense brightness of these spots is due to the reflection of sunlight by highly reflective material on the surface, possibly ice,” Christopher Russell, principal investigator for the Dawn mission from the University of California, Los Angeles, said recently.

Dawn arrived at Ceres on March 6, marking the first time a spacecraft has orbited a dwarf planet. Previously, the spacecraft explored giant asteroid Vesta for 14 months from 2011 to 2012. Dawn has the distinction of being the only spacecraft to orbit two extraterrestrial targets.

The spacecraft has been using its ion propulsion system to maneuver to its second mapping orbit at Ceres, which it will reach on June 6. The spacecraft will remain at a distance of 2,700 miles (4,400 kilometers) from the dwarf planet until June 30. Afterward, it will make its way to lower orbits.

Ceres White Spots
This image of Ceres is part of a sequence taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft on May 16, 2015, from a distance of 4,500 miles (7,200 kilometers). Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA