Image: NASA New Horizons Spacecraft (false color by oklo).
One day, one hour, and nine minutes ago, the New Horizons spacecraft sailed flawlessly through its closest approach to Jupiter. A day later, Jupiter still looms large in New Horizon’s field of view, with an angular size more than five times greater than the size of the full moon in our sky.
Jupiter, during its 4.5 billion year history, has been visited by at least seven other probes. Pioneer 10, Pioneer 11, Voyager 1, Voyager 2, Ulysses, Galileo, and Cassini have all successfully made the journey. This latest encounter was buried beneath the news of a 500-point drop in the Dow Jones Industrial Average. The flyby, in fact, hasn’t even made it onto the Astronomy Picture of the Day!
A decade ago, many of the metal atoms in the New Horizons spacecraft were still buried in the Earth’s crust. A bit more than a year ago, the assembled spacecraft was flown, in a sealed pressurized container, to Cape Canaveral for launch. All through the past several weeks, it’s been taking pictures of the Jovian system. Most of the data will be radioed back to Earth over the coming months. The image above was taken on Monday, and shows a Von Karman vortex sheet trailing away from the Little Red Spot, currently the second-largest storm in the Solar System.
In a sense, the Jupiter encounter was mostly utilitarian. It boosted the spacecraft’s heliocentric velocity (at the expense of Jupiter’s orbital energy) and cut down the travel time to Pluto.
The next scheduled mission to Jupiter is Juno, the Jupiter Polar Orbiter, which is scheduled to arrive at the Jovian system in 2016.