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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.

Destination: Europa!

Posted by Steve Vance on 2013/12/16 01:36 CST | 5 comments

It's time to reassess Europa exploration, past, present and future. The Destination Europa! session at AGU, inspired by the eponymous website and movement, didn't take exactly that message as its theme, but it's what I got from the presentations. What an ELECTRIFYING meeting this has been for Europa exploration!

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Europa: No Longer a "Should," But a "Must"

Posted by Casey Dreier on 2013/12/12 07:51 CST | 10 comments

We've waited long enough, Europa cries out for exploration and discovery. It's time to heed that cry.

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A Tale of Two Posters: Sediment on Mars and Searching Jupiter's Rings

Posted by Mark Hilverda on 2013/12/12 07:39 CST

A close look at two international planetary science poster presentations from the 2013 AGU Fall Meeting featuring sediment experiments to better understand Martian geomorphology and Juno's plans for exploring Jupiter's ring system.

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The Plumes of Europa

Posted by Leigh Fletcher on 2013/12/12 12:01 CST | 12 comments

2013 has been a rather exciting year for Europa scientists. Today's exciting news: the Hubble Space Telescope discovery of water vapor plumes from the south pole of this icy moon.

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Enceladus huffs and puffs: plumes vary with orbital longitude

Posted by Emily Lakdawalla on 2013/12/11 07:22 CST | 2 comments

In which I finally get around to writing about a paper published last August: Enceladus' plumes sometimes spout more and sometimes spout less, depending on where Enceladus is in its orbit. This discovery was enabled by Cassini's longevity at Saturn, and we'll be able to follow up on it, as long as Cassini is allowed to complete its mission.

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Pretty picture: newly processed high-res view of a fractured icy moon, Dione

Posted by Emily Lakdawalla on 2013/12/04 11:38 CST | 4 comments

Here's a lovely new view of Dione, one of the lovely mid-sized icy moons of Saturn, assembled by Daniel Macháček.

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Planetary Radio: Rise of the Europa Underground?

Posted by Mat Kaplan on 2013/11/26 09:39 CST | 2 comments

This week's PlanRad talks to one of the creators of a new effort to build support for the Europa Clipper, a spacecraft that would tell us far more about what's going on under that icy moon's surface.

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A case of the measles for Jupiter?

Posted by Emily Lakdawalla on 2013/11/26 03:09 CST | 1 comment

Amateur astronomer Christopher Go has found Jupiter to be putting on a fun show for observers: it's sprouting little red spots "like it has a measles attack!"

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Just what is going on in that magnificent Cassini image of Saturn?

Posted by Emily Lakdawalla on 2013/11/13 03:58 CST | 7 comments

It took months of work (and no wonder) but the wait was worth it: here is Cassini's spectacular view of Saturn, captured on July 19, 2013, as Cassini passed through Saturn's shadow. If you're a little confused by the image, I'm here to help: I've posted a video explainer.

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Neptune: The new amateur boundary?

Posted by Christophe Pellier on 2013/11/07 05:39 CST | 3 comments

Can features on Neptune be observed by amateur astronomers? For years, the Hubble Space Telescope and some professional terrestrial observatories have been revealing incomplete belts and spots on the surface of Neptune. Now, spots have been imaged by amateurs.

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