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Outer Planets

Jupiter. Saturn. Uranus. Neptune. Each of these giant planets is the center of its own miniature solar system. Each is spectacularly beautiful and scientifically fascinating, which are reasons enough to explore them. But by studying the giant planets and their rings and moons, we can also learn about the forces that operated during the formation of our own solar system, as well as the origins of the hundreds of new extrasolar planetary systems that we discover every year.

And their moons are worlds in their own right. There are at least 16 outer planetary moons that would be called dwarf planets if they orbited the Sun rather than a planet. Two (Jupiter's Ganymede and Saturn's Titan) are larger than the planet Mercury, and one (Triton) is probably a captured Kuiper belt object.

But it is challenging and expensive to explore the outer planets, and missions to the outer planets take a very long time to develop, fly, and operate. Cassini will be orbiting Saturn until 2017, and Juno will operate at Jupiter from 2016 to 2017. After that, it's not clear if anyone will be sending a followup mission to Saturn or Jupiter or its moons, or an orbiter to survey the Uranus or Neptune systems. And there is a critical shortage of the isotope of plutonium that is needed to generate power for outer planetary missions.

Cassini's camera views of Titan's polar lakes in summer, processed into pseudocolor

Posted by Emily Lakdawalla on 2016/09/12 01:50 CDT | 1 comment

Titan's north polar lakes are well-lit by summer sun in these recent Cassini images. Image processing enthusiast Ian Regan shares his recipe for processing the longer-wavelength Titan images into visually pleasing "pseudocolor."

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Juno's instruments return riches from first perijove

Posted by Emily Lakdawalla on 2016/09/02 02:30 CDT | 3 comments

On August 27, Juno soared across Jupiter's cloud tops from pole to pole, with all instruments operating. NASA posted some terrific first results from several of the instruments today. And the JunoCam team released all 28 raw images taken during the close encounter.

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Will Juno’s Instruments Observe the Moons of Jupiter?

Posted by Candice Hansen on 2016/08/30 10:38 CDT | 2 comments

It is not easy to observe Jupiter’s moons as more than points of light with Juno, because Juno will never get very close to any of the moons, but as its orbit shifts there will be opportunities to collect data on some of the moons.

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Juno's first Jupiter close approach successful; best JunoCam images yet to come

Posted by Emily Lakdawalla on 2016/08/27 08:07 CDT | 13 comments

NASA announced this afternoon that Juno passed through its first perijove since entering orbit successfully, with science instruments operating all the way. This is a huge relief, given all the unknowns about the effects of Jupiter's nasty radiation environment on its brand-new orbiter.

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JunoCam "Marble Movie" data available

Posted by Emily Lakdawalla on 2016/08/22 04:56 CDT | 11 comments

Since a few days after entering orbit, JunoCam has been taking photos of Jupiter every fifteen minutes, accumulating a trove of data that can be assembled into a movie of the planet.

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Juno’s other ‘cameras’

Posted by Anna Scott on 2016/08/16 10:57 CDT | 3 comments

Juno’s science goals are to understand the origin and interior of Jupiter, focusing specifically on its atmosphere and magnetic field. Cameras can help answer some of these questions.

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JunoCam raw data from the Juno approach movie

Posted by Emily Lakdawalla on 2016/08/09 03:03 CDT | 1 comment

As it approached Jupiter from June 12 to 29, JunoCam captured an animation of the major moons orbiting the planet. The mission released a processed version of the animation on the day of orbit insertion, but took a few weeks to release the raw image data. I've prepared a page hosting all the raw data, and share a few processed versions.

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Jupiter's Clouds: A Primer

Posted by Justin Cowart on 2016/07/08 08:02 CDT | 7 comments

With Juno arriving at Jupiter, Justin Cowart gives us a lesson on the giant planet's varied cloud patterns.

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Oppositions, conjunctions, seasons, and ring plane crossings of the giant planets

Posted by Emily Lakdawalla on 2016/07/07 08:01 CDT | 4 comments

When are the solstices and equinoxes on the giant planets, and when are they best positioned for view from Earth? I ask these questions a lot as I write about Earth photos of giant planets, and I finally decided to gather the answers to those questions in a single post.

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Juno has arrived!

Posted by Emily Lakdawalla on 2016/07/05 01:14 CDT | 7 comments

For a second time, NASA has placed a spacecraft into orbit at Jupiter. The spacecraft operated exactly according to plan, and Juno successfully entered orbit today, July 5, 2016, UTC

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