Mason Scientist Gets New Glimpses at Jupiter and Its Moons

Posted: March 7, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Tara Laskowski

Last week, the work that Mason planetary atmosphere expert Michael Summers began last year started to pay off in a big way. As a team member for the New Horizons mission that is heading to Pluto, Summers saw a burst of activity when the unmanned spacecraft reached the giant planet Jupiter, an important milestone for the mission.

On Feb. 28, New Horizons made its closest fly-by past Jupiter, using the big planet’s gravity to slingshot it on toward Pluto. This propulsion allowed New Horizons to become the fastest man-made object in space.

Io, one of Jupiter's moons
Io, one of Jupiter’s moons

“The spacecraft is working perfectly,” he says. “When New Horizons came within 1.4 million miles of Jupiter, it used the natural gravitational propulsion to reduce its journey by three years.”

Although the ultimate goal of New Horizons is the study of Pluto, Summers is also excited by the opportunity to get new photos of, and data from, Jupiter. The spacecraft is now sending back information on Jupiter’s famous Great Red Spot, a storm so massive it could engulf two Earths, and the Little Red Spot, a storm that formed in the last few years.

“Some really amazing pictures are now coming back from the spacecraft. Many were taken near closest approach and were stored on a tape recorder. They are now being sent back over the next few weeks.”

Summers is particularly excited about some of the first close-up images that New Horizons is transmitting back this week of one of Jupiter’s moons, Io. His planetary research has dealt with the chemistry and thermal structure of the atmospheres of Io, and now he has a wonderful chance to get a glimpse of its surface.

“We have pictures of Io that show a huge volcano spewing gas and dust upwards over 200 miles into space,” Summers says. “We’ve never seen anything like this.”

Because of constantly improving technology, New Horizons is the fastest spacecraft ever launched. It launched on Jan. 19, 2006, reaching lunar orbit distance in just nine hours (other spacecrafts have taken an average of three days to reach the moon) and traveling almost half a billion miles to Jupiter in less than 13 months.

Yet the entire spacecraft, drawing electricity from a single radioisotope thermoelectric generator, operates on less power than a pair of 100-watt household light bulbs.

New Horizons should reach Pluto in 2015 to conduct a five-month-long study possible only from the close-up vantage of a spacecraft. It will characterize the global geology and geomorphology of Pluto and Plutos’s moon, Charon; map their surface compositions and temperatures; and examine Pluto’s atmospheric composition and structure. New Horizons also will study the small moons recently discovered in the Pluto system.

While Summers is waiting for New Horizons to reach Pluto, he will be keeping busy with other research. Summers is a member of the team of scientists launching the Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere (AIM) climate satellite on April 25, a project that will measure the most sensitive indicators of global temperature and climate change.

Trajectory of New Horizons
This graph shows the trajectory of the New Horizons spacecraft as it flew by Jupiter last week.
Images courtesy of NASA

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