Photo: NASA /Southwest Research Institute /Malin Space Science Systems (MSSS)
A little out-of-this-world fireworks just upstaged the biggest planet in our solar system.
San Antonio’s Southwest Research Institute has revealed dynamic new images of a volcanic plume shooting from Jupiter’s moon Io, the most volcanically active body in the solar system. The eruption appears just past the moon’s day-night boundary, known as the terminator. The images come from NASA’s Juno space probe mission, headed by the institute’s Scott Bolton.
Bolton referred to the Io shots in a statement as a lucky New Year’s present. When reached for comment later, he hinted at even more Jovian treats to come from the spacecraft with ties to the Alamo City.
“I definitely think you’ll see some spectacular images and movies of the planet,” said Bolton, Juno’s principal investigator and an associate vice president of the institute’s Space Science and Engineering Division. “We’re all sort of mesmerized by Jupiter’s beauty.”
And to think Juno spotted the fires of Io while focusing on its ice.
Juno was scanning Io’s polar region on Dec. 21 when several of its cameras captured the moon’s volcanic action during more than an hour of observation.
Juno’s JunoCam acquired the first images, which look the most like standard photographs. These show a half-illuminated Io with a soaring volcanic plume lit by sunlight, much like a mountain range sometimes reflects sunset later than other elevations on Earth, Bolton said.
Juno’s Jovian Infrared Auroral Mapper shows Io in the infrared spectrum with glowing dots signifying high temperatures from volcanic activity. And Juno’s low-light Stellar Reference Unit offered a black-and-white view of Io’s volcanic moment thanks to moonlight from Europa, one of Jupiter’s other moons, while Io was in total eclipse behind Jupiter.
“What’s great about this particular set of images is that you’ve got three different cameras that are looking at Io in totally different ways,” said Heidi Becker, lead of Juno’s radiation monitoring investigation at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “The ability to see the same body from all these different perspectives at essentially the same time gives you more information.”
As for capturing that seemingly perfect image of a half-lit Io with a glowing dot at its center, sometimes it comes down to more than just science.
“The symmetry is really luck,” Becker said. “Just the luck of the draw and just the way the sun happened to hit Io at that particular time.”
While the Juno mission concentrates on Jupiter, Becker said the Juno team always looks for opportunities to conduct even more science with the spacecraft’s instrumentation than originally intended, such as taking a look at the planet’s moons whenever the probe is near them.
According to Bolton, the new Io images can lead to new insights into Jupiter’s interactions with its Galilean moons, such as Io’s volcanic activity or freezing of the moon’s atmosphere during eclipse, as well as Io’s interaction with Jupiter’s magnetic field.
NASA’s Voyager first discovered Io’s volcanoes in 1979.
Juno has captured other Jovian wonders. In 2016, it provided a rare look at Jupiter’s south pole. And in 2017, Juno delivered stunning images of the gas giant’s 10,000-mile-wide storm known as the Great Red Spot, when the spacecraft flew just 2,200 miles from Jupiter’s surface.
Launched in 2011, the solar-powered Juno reached Jupiter in 2016 and orbits the planet every 53 days. The latest Io images come halfway into Juno’s mission, which is scheduled to complete a map of Jupiter in July 2021.
Michelle Risse, planetarium coordinator for the Scobee Education Center at San Antonio College, lauded the Juno mission as much for shedding light on the probe’s San Antonio roots as for showing Io in action.
“Now we’re seeing these awe-inspiring images through Juno,” Risse said. “And the great thing is most of the spacecraft was created by Southwest Research, so we’re touching the cosmos from our own backyard.”
Bolton said Juno has upended previous notions about Jupiter. Those swirling zones and belts around the gas giant? They seem to penetrate much deeper than anyone thought, he said. And in looking for a compact core or no core at all at the planet’s center, Juno researchers instead found evidence of a very large diffuse core.
“We’re just rewriting the whole textbook of how giant planets work,” Bolton said.
For those next chapters on Jupiter, Bolton said Juno will get closer to the planet’s poles for a look at polar cyclones and fly over the Great Red Spot again, this time to see if there is a detectable gravitational mass associated with it. Juno also will continue to study Jupiter’s aurora and how northern lights work on the planet.
“Expect more surprises,” Becker said.
René A. Guzman is a staff writer in the San Antonio and Bexar County area. Read him on our free site, mySA.com, and on our subscriber site, ExpressNews.com. | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter: @reneguz