Home Technology Pluto-bound New Horizons sees changes in Jupiter system

Pluto-bound New Horizons sees changes in Jupiter system

Washington, Oct 10 (Xinhua) The voyage of the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Pluto-bound New Horizons spacecraft through the Jupiter system earlier this year provided a bird’s-eye view of a dynamic planet that has changed since the last close-up observations by NASA spacecraft, the federal space agency reported.

New Horizons passed Jupiter Feb 28, riding the planet’s gravity to boost its speed and shave three years off its trip to Pluto.

New Horizons’ seven instruments made more than 700 separate observations of the Jovian system from January to June, with most of them coming in the eight days during closest approach to Jupiter.

It was the eighth spacecraft to visit Jupiter — but a combination of trajectory, timing and technology allowed it to explore details no probe had seen before.

Details seen included lightning near the planet’s poles, the life cycle of fresh ammonia clouds, boulder-size clumps speeding through the planet’s faint rings, the structure inside volcanic eruptions on its moon Io, and the path of charged particles traversing the previously unexplored length of the planet’s long magnetic tail.

“The Jupiter encounter was successful beyond our wildest dreams,” New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern said Tuesday.

“Not only did it prove out our spacecraft and put it on course to reach Pluto in 2015, it was a chance for us to take sophisticated instruments to places in the Jovian system where other spacecraft couldn’t go, and to return important data that adds tremendously to our understanding of the solar system’s largest planet and its moons, rings and atmosphere.”

The New Horizons team presented its latest and most detailed analyses of that data Tuesday at the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences meeting in Florida. The analyses will also be published in a special section of the Oct 12 issue of the journal Science.

New Horizons lifted off in January 2006. The fastest spacecraft ever launched, it needed just 13 months to reach Jupiter. New Horizons is now about halfway between the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn, more than 1.19 billion km from Earth. It will fly past Pluto and its moons in July 2015 before heading deeper into the Kuiper belt of icy rocky objects on the planetary frontier.