On this day in science history – Galileo spacecraft orbits Jupiter
In 1995, the Galileo spacecraft arrived at Jupiter and entered orbit after 6 years of travel including a flyby of Venus and two asteroids, Gaspra and Ida. The orbiter had also carried an atmospheric probe with scientific instruments, which it had released from the main spacecraft in July 1995, five months before reaching Jupiter. Galileo then spent a further 8 years examining Jupiter and its moons Io and Europa.
|Jupiter. By NASA, ESA, and A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons|
In 1994, the Galileo orbiter was present to watch the fragments of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 crash into Jupiter. Its mission was concluded 21 September 2003 by sending the orbiter into Jupiter’s atmosphere at a speed of nearly 50 km/sec, destroying it to avoid any chance of it contaminating local moons with bacteria from Earth.
Jupiter is the fifth planet from the Sun and the largest in the Solar System. It is a giant planet with a mass one-thousandth that of the Sun, but two and a half times that of all the other planets in the Solar System combined. Jupiter is a gas giant, along with Saturn, with the other two giant planets, Uranus and Neptune, being ice giants. Jupiter was known to astronomers of ancient times. The Romans named it after their god Jupiter. When viewed from Earth, Jupiter can reach an apparent magnitude of −2.94, bright enough for its reflected light to cast shadows, and making it on average the third-brightest object in the night sky after the Moon and Venus.
Jupiter is primarily composed of hydrogen with a quarter of its mass being helium, though helium comprises only about a tenth of the number of molecules. It may also have a rocky core of heavier elements, but like the other giant planets, Jupiter lacks a well-defined solid surface. Because of its rapid rotation, the planet’s shape is that of an oblate spheroid (it has a slight but noticeable bulge around the equator). The outer atmosphere is visibly segregated into several bands at different latitudes, resulting in turbulence and storms along their interacting boundaries.
A prominent result is the Great Red Spot, a giant storm that is known to have existed since at least the 17th century when it was first seen by telescope. Surrounding Jupiter is a faint planetary ring system and a powerful magnetosphere. Jupiter has at least 67 moons, including the four large Galilean moons discovered by Galileo Galilei in 1610. Ganymede, the largest of these, has a diameter greater than that of the planet Mercury.
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