Saturday, February 18, 2017

Southern Exposure

The above picture is a view of Jupiter from high above its South Pole. It's from the Juno probe currently hanging around our solar system's largest planet, running measurements and taking snapshots.

The view is one we've never seen before. With the exception of Pluto and Uranus, all of the planets in our solar system (Shut up! It is so a planet!) orbit the sun in what's called the "invariable plane" of the solar system oriented more or less like we are. Pluto varies widely from this plane, and Uranus is tilted so far over (more than 90 degrees) that it would look more like it was rolling around the sun rather than orbiting. At a tilt of 177 degrees, Venus is upside down.

But since the rest of us are on about the same plane, with not much more than 5 degrees difference in our orbital paths, it's impossible for us to get an angle that shows the top or bottom of any of the other planets from any of our earthly vantage points. It takes satellite missions that are designed to alter their orbits every now and again to look at parts of the planets we can't see.

Which in Jupiter's case we technically haven't done. As a gas giant, Jupiter has an incredibly huge, thick and dense atmosphere through which we cannot see. Whatever is solid deep inside that later remains a mystery to us and probably will for some time. It would take a satellite to dive down into the atmosphere, yes, but one a whole lot tougher than anything we can make now to survive the extreme winds, temperatures and pressures of the Jovian atmosphere.

No comments: