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Moon and Jupiter

April 6, 2014

Jupiter is the giant of the solar system. It’s more than 10 times wider than Earth, and has about 120 times the surface area. That’s a lot of territory to explore. So far, though, we’ve sampled just a tiny patch of it. A small probe parachuted through Jupiter’s thick atmosphere in 1995, and transmitted a few minutes of readings on the chemistry, wind speeds, and more.

To learn more than that, we’ll need probes that can stay aloft for a while. One option is to attach instruments to a giant balloon and let it float along with the planet’s high-speed winds.

And a decade ago, a small study done for NASA proposed a nuclear-powered ramjet.

The craft would fly along at three times the speed of sound, scooping up hydrogen gas from Jupiter’s upper atmosphere. A small nuclear generator would heat the compressed gas, and an engine would shoot it out the back. Instruments would be housed in the craft’s wings, and small probes would be dropped every few thousand miles to sample lower altitudes. The study concluded that such a craft could circle Jupiter several times.

Like many such plans, it’s not likely to be developed for quite a while — if ever. But it shows that there are options if we want to drop in on the solar system’s largest planet.

And Jupiter is in good view tonight. It looks like a brilliant star. It’s to the upper right of the Moon at nightfall, and tags along with the Moon as they drop down the western sky later on.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2014

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