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Moon and Jupiter

December 30, 2015

For an amazing hour in December of 1995, a small American probe parachuted through the dense atmosphere of Jupiter, the solar system’s largest planet. It drifted with high-speed winds and floated past clouds as it dropped deeper and deeper. Finally, it succumbed to intense heat and pressure — destroyed by the planet it came to study.

The probe was part of a mission known as Galileo. It arrived at Jupiter on December 7th. The probe transmitted its findings to an orbiter, which, despite some problems, studied Jupiter for almost eight years.

As the probe drifted through the Jovian atmosphere, it found that temperatures were hotter than expected. It also found much less water than expected, and it didn’t detect the crackle of lightning from the surrounding clouds.

The probe measured wind speeds at more than 300 miles per hour, and it encountered severe turbulence as it descended.

Later observations from the ground and from the Galileo orbiter found that the probe actually had a bit of bad luck. It visited a region that was much drier than most of Jupiter’s atmosphere — the equivalent of dropping into the Sahara here on Earth.

Still, the probe gave us our first glimpse into the deep, turbulent atmosphere of a giant planet.

Look for Jupiter early tomorrow. It looks like a brilliant star close to the lower left of the gibbous Moon as they rise into good view after midnight, and even closer to the upper left of the Moon at first light.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2015

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