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.
Posted by Emily Lakdawalla on 2012/03/13 04:08 CDT
In this week's Snapshots from Space video, I talk about the Voyager 1 images of Jupiter -- how many there are (tens of thousands), and what a challenge they represent for image processors. But, I promise, the effort is worth it. Here's just one example: it's a color, crescent view of Jupiter, taken by Voyager 1 as it departed.
Posted by Emily Lakdawalla on 2012/03/08 02:27 CST
Clearly, this is Saturn, and its rings, and if you look closer you can see a tiny circle, on top of the rings, which is Mimas, and two stars in the background. It should look weird to you that while the rings are bright, Mimas is a black dot. What is happening here? Nearly everything in this picture is lit by light that has not arrived directly from the Sun.
Posted by Emily Lakdawalla on 2012/01/26 03:55 CST
I ran into a semantic problem today: what to call the science of studying liquids on Titan?
Posted by Emily Lakdawalla on 2012/01/12 04:33 CST
Evaporites form on planetary surfaces when dissolved chemical solids precipitate out of saturated solution as their liquid solvent evaporates and, until recently, were known to exist only on Earth and Mars. This article from the IAG Planetary Geomorphology Working Group describes the third planetary instance of evaporite, discovered on Saturn's moon Titan.
Posted by Emily Lakdawalla on 2012/01/09 11:23 CST
A recent view from Cassini of Saturn with its largest moon (Titan) and one of its small ringmoons, Prometheus.
Posted by Emily Lakdawalla on 2011/12/22 11:52 CST
Cassini flew close by Dione on December 12 and, as usual, the close pass provided opportunities for lots of dramatic photos, not just of Dione, but of other moons wandering by in the background.