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Meet Metis – Jupiter’s Closest, Quickest Moon

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!

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It’s Been 32 Years Since We Last Explored Uranus

The blue-green crescent of Uranus imaged by a departing Voyager 2 on January 25, 1986 (NASA)

The blue-green crescent of Uranus imaged by a departing Voyager 2 on January 25, 1986 (NASA)

Voyager 2 may have been the second of NASA’s famous twin exploration spacecraft but it actually launched first, on August 20, 1977. Eight and a half years later it became the first (and, to date, last) spacecraft to visit Uranus, at 31,500 miles across the third largest planet in the Solar System. Voyager 2 made its closest pass by Uranus 32 years ago, giving us our best views ever of the enormous ice giant planet and its moons.

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Eppur Si Muove: Galileo’s Big Night

Jupiter and its four largest “Galilean” moons photographed on April 16, 2016. © Jason Major

On this night in 1610 the Pisan astronomer Galileo Galilei looked up at a bright Jupiter at opposition through his handmade telescope and noted three little “stars” next to it, piquing his natural scientific curiosity. Further observations over the next few nights showed that the planet wasn’t moving relative to the little “stars” as it would have if they were indeed background stars. In fact the smaller objects (of which he soon saw four) were moving along with Jupiter, each in its own little path. He realized that the little objects weren’t stars at all but rather moons orbiting the giant planet—and, most importantly, not the Earth. This revelation helped change our entire view of the Solar System… and caused no end of trouble for Galileo as the Church didn’t appreciate a restructuring of their conveniently Earth-centered Universe. But it also opened the door for later discoveries of many more moons around other planets.

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Juno and JEDI Deliver New Discoveries About Jupiter

JunoCam image of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot from July 11, 2017, processed by Gerald Eichstadt and edited by Jason Major.

Saturn has its rings, Mars has its rusty landscape, Earth has its whales, water, and wi-fi…and Jupiter has its Great Red Spot. The giant gas planet’s enormous orange storm—once over twice the diameter of Earth but today “only” about 1.3 times as wide—is one of the most distinctive planetary features in our Solar System. It’s so well-known that even young children are sure to include its orangey oval when drawing Jupiter!

Jupiter imaged by Hubble on 4-3-17. NASA, ESA, and A. Simon (GSFC).

But as famous as it is, there’s a lot we still don’t know about Jupiter’s giant storm. NASA’s Juno spacecraft, launched in August 2011, has now been orbiting Jupiter since July 4, 2016 and has been using its suite of science instruments to investigate the planet’s complex atmosphere like never before possible. Thanks to Juno, for the first time scientists are able to “see” deep below Jupiter’s dense clouds (in microwave wavelengths, that is) and find out what’s happening inside the GRS. What they’ve discovered is a storm hundreds of miles deep with a hot base that powers its winds.

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We May Have Just Been Visited By An Interstellar Comet

“This object came from outside our solar system.”
— Rob Weryk, postdoctoral researcher at University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy

Diagram of the path of C/2017 U1 PanSTARRS (now A/2017 U1), a possible interstellar comet (or asteroid) spotted on Oct. 18, 2017. (NASA/JPL)

On October 14, 2017, what appears to be a comet (er, make that asteroid…read more below) sped past Earth at a distance of about 15 million miles after swinging around the Sun. It had come within 23.4 million miles of our home star over a month earlier on Sept. 9, and in fact wasn’t spotted by astronomers until Oct. 18—four days after its closest pass by us.

Further observations showed that the approximately 525-foot-wide object (an estimate based on its reflectivity) first approached traveling 16 miles a second from the direction of the constellation Lyra—quite a high angle from the plane of the rest of the Solar System—and is on a hyperbolic trajectory, moving quickly enough both in- and outbound along its course to permanently escape the Sun’s gravity unlike any other comet asteroid ever observed.

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