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Jupiter and Io imaged by Voyager 1 in February 1979

Jupiter is the reigning heavyweight among the planets in our solar system so it just makes sense that it also possesses the most natural satellites. Over the past year I have been gleefully telling people that Jupiter has 69 moons (usually to a shocked response, occasionally to a giggling one) but now I must admit that I was quite wrong—Jupiter is now known to have 79 moons, ten newly discovered along with two previously announced in 2017 confirmed.

The new moons are all quite small—only one to three kilometers across—and orbit Jupiter far beyond the four well-known Galilean moons.

One of the moons is being called an “oddball” due to the fact that it orbits in a prograde direction (the same direction that Jupiter rotates on its axis) but is regularly found amongst Jupiter’s more distant retrograde moons during the course of its year-and-a-half-long orbit. This 1-km-wide moon is being called Valetudo after the Roman goddess of health and a great granddaughter of Jupiter.

Jupiter’s newly-discovered moons and their orbits (in blue, red, and green)

The moons were discovered by a team of astronomers searching the far reaches of the solar system for direct evidence of a massive world beyond Pluto…the “Planet Nine” proposed by Mike Brown and Konstantin Batygin in 2016. Jupiter just happened to be within the field of view, so they took a look to see what they might find.

So if the moons were spotted in 2017, why are we all just hearing about them now?

“It takes several observations to confirm an object actually orbits around Jupiter,” according to Gareth Williams at the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center. “So, the whole process took a year.”

Read more about this discovery and how it was made on the Carnegie Institution for Science website here.

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Extended-color image of Pluto made from data acquired by New Horizons on July 14, 2015. (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Jason Major)

Holy Hadean history Batman, where does the time go? Today marks the third anniversary of New Horizons‘ flyby of Pluto and Charon, the first, last, and as yet only mission ever to the distant dwarf planet (aka the reigning King of the Kuiper Belt.) All of the close-up detailed images of Pluto and Charon we have (like this one) and likely will ever have for a long time were captured on this day in 2015 as the spacecraft zipped past. It was truly a historic moment in planetary exploration history!

Below is the post I wrote on the day of the flyby, July 14, 2015….just for a little space reverie.

It’s happened! At 7:49 a.m. EDT (11:49 UTC) this morning, July 14 2015, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft performed its close pass of Pluto and, fourteen minutes later, its moon Charon. While we won’t receive a signal from New Horizons until about 9 p.m. tonight (and image data from the flyby won’t arrive until July 15th) NASA did share this gorgeous image this morning just before the flyby. it was taken by New Horizons on July 13th and has a resolution of about 4 km (2.4 miles) per pixel, and shows the distant world in approximate true-color. It’s highly-publicized “heart” feature is seen front-and-center – proof that Pluto loves ya!

New Horizons image of Pluto the day before the flyby. NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

And, according to New Horizons PI Dr. Alan Stern, this is but a teaser for the “data waterfall” that’s to begin arriving tomorrow! What an amazing day for science.

“The New Horizons team is proud to have accomplished the first exploration of the Pluto system. This mission has inspired people across the world with the excitement of exploration and what humankind can achieve.”

– Dr. Alan Stern, New Horizons PI, SwRI

The New Horizons team at Johns Hopkins APL when the image above was revealed. (NASA TV)

The spacecraft is now moving away from the Pluto system at over 30,000 mph. It will spend the next 16 months transmitting data from the flyby back to Earth so scientists can fill in the long-missing gaps on our knowledge of Pluto and its family of moons.

Check back at the New Horizons site for updates.

“It’s truly amazing that humankind can go out and explore these worlds.”
– Alice Bowman, New Horizons Mission Operations Manager

Update: I had a chance to talk about Pluto with Nerdist.com writer Sarah Keartes – check out her article here.

Also, there was a funny segment by Stephen Colbert and Neil deGrasse Tyson (whom I do not completely agree with regarding Pluto) on the night of the flyby about these images of Pluto – check that out below!

9th Rock from the Sun - YouTube

“Rather than call Pluto a planet, I’d take all the four rocky planets and call them dwarf planets.”
– Neil deGrasse Tyson

Really??

False-color image of Pluto and Charon highlights regional color variations on the two worlds (NASA/APL/SwRI)

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Approximate true-color view of the southern hemisphere of Uranus made from images acquired by the Voyager 2 spacecraft in January 1986.

Scientists have just confirmed what every third-grader has known for nearly 170 years* as irrefutable fact: Uranus smells like stinky farts.

Let the giggling commence.

First of all, I’m assuming you’re used to using the pronunciation “your-AY-nus,” which of course in English provides all sorts of opportunities for comedy. But if you use the other (and technically more correct) pronunciation “YER-ah-nus” then perhaps we can proceed with a modicum of dignity here.

Researchers have identified the chemical signature of hydrogen sulfide in the upper atmosphere of Uranus, the pale blue gas-enshrouded ice giant located between Saturn and Neptune.

See more articles about Uranus here.

Hydrogen sulfide—H2S—is the molecule responsible for the unmistakable stench of rotten eggs…and yes, stinky farts. P.U.

Closer gaseous planets to the Sun Jupiter and Saturn don’t appear to have any detectable H2S in their upper atmospheres, but Uranus does. Given the long-standing fun kids (and adults) have had with the planet’s name, it seems fitting. But in actuality the confirmation of the compound’s presence really is a new discovery.

“We’ve strongly suspected that hydrogen sulfide gas was influencing the millimeter and radio spectrum of Uranus for some time, but we were unable to attribute the absorption needed to identify it positively. Now, that part of the puzzle is falling into place as well,” said Glenn Orton, one of the team’s researchers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA.

The findings were made using data acquired by the Near-Infrared Integral Field Spectrometer (NIFS) on the 8-meter Gemini North telescope on Maunakea in Hawai’i.

“This work is a strikingly innovative use of an instrument originally designed to study the explosive environments around huge black holes at the centers of distant galaxies,” said Chris Davis of the National Science Foundation, a leading funder of the Gemini telescope. “To use NIFS to solve a longstanding mystery in our own Solar System is a powerful extension of its use.”

It’s very likely that Neptune, located even further out than Uranus, also has hydrogen sulfide in its upper atmosphere…although it’s only speculation at this point. Both planets contain large amounts of hydrogen, helium, and methane in their atmospheres—the latter of which absorbs red wavelengths of light and gives them their bluish color. But methane to us is odorless…hydrogen sulfide is certainly not.

So if for any reason you were to stick your head in Uranus and take a deep breath (don’t forget our pronunciation lesson now) you would likely wonder who was responsible for the smell…that is, before your face froze off in the -300ºF temperatures and you suffocated from the lack of any breathable oxygen.

Then again, it might be a welcome end were you to find yourself stuck on a stinky planet four times the size of Earth.

Read more from the Gemini Observatory here and from NASA here.

*When William Herschel discovered Uranus in 1781 he named it “the Georgium Sidus” (the Georgian Planet) in honor of King George III. It wasn’t until about 1850 that the name Uranus—the Greek god of the sky—was in common use. (Source)

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Processed raw image of Metis captured by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft in 1997. (NASA/JPL/Jason Major)

Everyone’s heard of Jupiter’s four most famous moons Europa, Io, Callisto, and Ganymede—we’ve known about them for over 400 years, thanks to Galileo—but giant Jupiter has many more moons than that. To date there are thought to be 69 natural satellites orbiting Jupiter. 53 are officially named, while 16 are awaiting further confirmation. So you’d be forgiven for not being immediately familiar with all of them…it’s a big Jovian family!

The little world seen above is one of Jupiter’s smaller and lesser-known satellites and it holds a particular distinction. It’s called Metis (pronounced like “meet” in the present tense, not “met” in the past) and it’s only about 37 miles across and 21 miles high. It is the closest moon to Jupiter, orbiting within the planet’s main ring (yes, Jupiter has rings) at a distance of about 80,000 miles. It’s also Jupiter’s speediest moon—at 70,500 mph it completes a single orbit in just over 7 hours. That’s almost three hours less than a Jovian day!

The image above was captured by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft on November 6, 1997, two years into its 8 years in orbit at Jupiter. It’s a highly-upscaled version of a raw file I downloaded from NASA’s Planetary Data System (PDS) archive using SETI’s OPUS site. I’ve recently been looking into some raw data from older missions with the goal of processing better versions of things I had worked on in previous years using lower-quality preview JPEGs, and also finding some things I didn’t know about before. Metis is one of them!

Galileo wasn’t the first spacecraft to capture images of Metis; actually Voyager 1 was. The moon was discovered by JPL astronomer Stephen Synnott in data acquired by Voyager 1 in 1979 during its flyby of Jupiter. In March 4 of that year Metis was captured passing in front of Jupiter’s bands of swirling clouds…imagine its view!

The image below is a color-composite I assembled from Voyager 1 observations in red, green, and blue visible-light filters. 37-mile-wide Metis is a tiny speck near the lower right.

Color-composite of Metis and Jupiter from Voyager 1 in March 1979. (NASA/JPL/Jason Major)

Can you spot Metis? If not, here’s some help:

There are three other inner moons of Jupiter in addition to Metis, which is the closest—Adrastea (the smallest and the only other inner moon to orbit faster than a Jovian day), Amalthea (the largest and first-known), and Thebe (rhymes with Phoebe). All orbit between the rings and the orbit of Io, the innermost of the four Galilean moons.

(I processed a Galileo image of Thebe as well:)

Processed raw image of Thebe from Galileo on Jan. 3, 2000. (NASA/JPL/Jason Major)

We don’t know that much about Metis, other than like the other inner moons it’s quite dark (albedo of .06) and is probably made mostly of water ice, based on density.

Learn more about Metis here, and find a full list of Jupiter’s known moons here.

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Approximate true-color view of the southern hemisphere of Uranus made from images acquired by the Voyager 2 spacecraft in January 1986.

Scientists have just confirmed what every third-grader has known for nearly 170 years* as irrefutable fact: Uranus smells like stinky farts.

Let the giggling commence.

First of all, I’m assuming you’re used to using the pronunciation “your-AY-nus,” which of course in English provides all sorts of opportunities for comedy. But if you use the other (and technically more correct) pronunciation “YER-ah-nus” then perhaps we can proceed with a modicum of dignity here.

Researchers have identified the chemical signature of hydrogen sulfide in the upper atmosphere of Uranus, the pale blue gas-enshrouded ice giant located between Saturn and Neptune.

See more articles about Uranus here.

Hydrogen sulfide—H2S—is the molecule responsible for the unmistakable stench of rotten eggs…and yes, stinky farts. P.U.

Closer gaseous planets to the Sun Jupiter and Saturn don’t appear to have any detectable H2S in their upper atmospheres, but Uranus does. Given the long-standing fun kids (and adults) have had with the planet’s name, it seems fitting. But in actuality the confirmation of the compound’s presence really is a new discovery.

“We’ve strongly suspected that hydrogen sulfide gas was influencing the millimeter and radio spectrum of Uranus for some time, but we were unable to attribute the absorption needed to identify it positively. Now, that part of the puzzle is falling into place as well,” said Glenn Orton, one of the team’s researchers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA.

The findings were made using data acquired by the Near-Infrared Integral Field Spectrometer (NIFS) on the 8-meter Gemini North telescope on Maunakea in Hawai’i.

“This work is a strikingly innovative use of an instrument originally designed to study the explosive environments around huge black holes at the centers of distant galaxies,” said Chris Davis of the National Science Foundation, a leading funder of the Gemini telescope. “To use NIFS to solve a longstanding mystery in our own Solar System is a powerful extension of its use.”

It’s very likely that Neptune, located even further out than Uranus, also has hydrogen sulfide in its upper atmosphere…although it’s only speculation at this point. Both planets contain large amounts of hydrogen, helium, and methane in their atmospheres—the latter of which absorbs red wavelengths of light and gives them their bluish color. But methane to us is odorless…hydrogen sulfide is certainly not.

So if for any reason you were to stick your head in Uranus and take a deep breath (don’t forget our pronunciation lesson now) you would likely wonder who was responsible for the smell…that is, before your face froze off in the -300ºF temperatures and you suffocated from the lack of any breathable oxygen.

Then again, it might be a welcome end were you to find yourself stuck on a stinky planet four times the size of Earth.

Read more from the Gemini Observatory here and from NASA here.

*When William Herschel discovered Uranus in 1781 he named it “the Georgium Sidus” (the Georgian Planet) in honor of King George III. It wasn’t until about 1850 that the name Uranus—the Greek god of the sky—was in common use. (Source)

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Processed raw image of Metis captured by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft in 1997. (NASA/JPL/Jason Major)

Everyone’s heard of Jupiter’s four most famous moons Europa, Io, Callisto, and Ganymede—we’ve known about them for over 400 years, thanks to Galileo—but giant Jupiter has many more moons than that. To date there are thought to be 69 natural satellites orbiting Jupiter. 53 are officially named, while 16 are awaiting further confirmation. So you’d be forgiven for not being immediately familiar with all of them…it’s a big Jovian family!

The little world seen above is one of Jupiter’s smaller and lesser-known satellites and it holds a particular distinction. It’s called Metis (pronounced like “meet” in the present tense, not “met” in the past) and it’s only about 37 miles across and 21 miles high. It is the closest moon to Jupiter, orbiting within the planet’s main ring (yes, Jupiter has rings) at a distance of about 80,000 miles. It’s also Jupiter’s speediest moon—at 70,500 mph it completes a single orbit in just over 7 hours. That’s almost three hours less than a Jovian day!

The image above was captured by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft on November 6, 1997, two years into its 8 years in orbit at Jupiter. It’s a highly-upscaled version of a raw file I downloaded from NASA’s Planetary Data System (PDS) archive using SETI’s OPUS site. I’ve recently been looking into some raw data from older missions with the goal of processing better versions of things I had worked on in previous years using lower-quality preview JPEGs, and also finding some things I didn’t know about before. Metis is one of them!

Galileo wasn’t the first spacecraft to capture images of Metis; actually Voyager 1 was. The moon was discovered by JPL astronomer Stephen Synnott in data acquired by Voyager 1 in 1979 during its flyby of Jupiter. In March 4 of that year Metis was captured passing in front of Jupiter’s bands of swirling clouds…imagine its view!

The image below is a color-composite I assembled from Voyager 1 observations in red, green, and blue visible-light filters. 37-mile-wide Metis is a tiny speck near the lower right.

Color-composite of Metis and Jupiter from Voyager 1 in March 1979. (NASA/JPL/Jason Major)

Can you spot Metis? If not, here’s some help:

There are three other inner moons of Jupiter in addition to Metis, which is the closest—Adrastea (the smallest and the only other inner moon to orbit faster than a Jovian day), Amalthea (the largest and first-known), and Thebe (rhymes with Phoebe). All orbit between the rings and the orbit of Io, the innermost of the four Galilean moons.

(I processed a Galileo image of Thebe as well:)

Processed raw image of Thebe from Galileo on Jan. 3, 2000. (NASA/JPL/Jason Major)

We don’t know that much about Metis, other than like the other inner moons it’s quite dark (albedo of .06) and is probably made mostly of water ice, based on density.

Learn more about Metis here, and find a full list of Jupiter’s known moons here.

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Hand-colored data from Mariner 4, the “first TV image of Mars,” captured on July 15, 1965. Via Dan Goods.

In November 1964 NASA launched Mariner 4, the fourth of its ambitious series of robotic explorations of our three inner planet neighbors. Mariner 1 was lost during launch; Mariner 2 successfully flew past Venus; Mariner 3 failed to deploy; but on July 14–15, 1965, the 575-lb Mariner 4 became the first spacecraft to fly past Mars and capture close-up images of another planet from space.

Of course the pictures that Mariner 4 captured were in greyscale and not like the beautiful color views we are used to seeing from spacecraft today. But thanks to one creative scientist at NASA (and a box of crayons) our first scenes of Mars from space were in brilliant color.

The 21 images of Mars successfully captured by Mariner 4 were taken with its TV camera and stored on an onboard tape recorder to be transmitted back to Earth over the following three weeks as part of the 5.2Mb of data acquired during the flyby.

Scientists assemble a ticker-tape mosaic of Mars from Mariner 4 data in 1965. (NASA/JPL)

The first of these images, a curved view looking over the planet’s surface from space, was assembled into a large color mosaic by scientists at JPL by printing out the arriving data on long strips of ticker-tape paper and—get this—hand-colored with pastel crayons.

The reason this was done was partially to confirm that the drive containing the image data was indeed working, and to create an image as quickly as possible (since computers in 1965 took considerably longer to assemble an image from raw data than they do today!)

Richard Grumm, the scientist in charge of Mariner 4’s tape system, created a “Mars color palette” using pastel crayons he bought from an art store and assigned hues and values to specific numbers in the data, printed onto the ticker tape. By coloring them in and stapling the strips together, he and his team effectively created the first “color” image of Mars…and in fact it was the first close-up image of Mars to be shown on television since the media reporters were ravenous for something to show the public.

Once Mariner 4’s data were processed into actual images they showed how close Drumm’s handmade version really was…but of course they were in greyscale whereas his was in beautiful shades of Martian oranges and yellows.

Hand-colored image (L) and processed TV camera image (R) of Mars from Mariner 4. (NASA/JPL-Caltech. Via Dan Goods.)

“Though he used a brown/red color scheme, the thought that Mars was red did not enter his mind. He really was looking for the colors that best represented a grey scale, since that was what they were going to get anyway. It is uncanny how close his color scheme is to the actual colors of Mars.”
— Dan Goods, Visual Strategist for JPL

The color mosaic is currently displayed at JPL in Pasadena, CA.

Read more about this fascinating “interplanetary color-by-numbers” in this blog post by Dan Goods, visual strategist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and learn more about the Mariner 4 mission here.

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