Completing its 57th orbit around Jupiter, NASA's Juno spacecraft is writing a new chapter in our understanding of our solar system's most volcanic moon, Io.
Unprecedented Look at Io
The spacecraft has managed to come within 1,500 kilometers of Io, capturing images of unprecedented resolution since the Galileo mission. The information gathered from Juno's infrared sensors is expected to enhance our understanding of this unique and volcanic moon.
Understanding Io’s Singular Nature
Io stands out in the solar system for several aspects. It ranks among the largest moons, boasting a diameter of 3,650 km. It is notable for having a dense, rocky core and for being subject to large tidal forces due to its proximity to Jupiter. This nearby giant planet has a considerable influence on Io, which is characterized by around 400 active volcanoes and a young surface covered in lava. Furthermore, it is known for ejecting matter into orbit.
Because of Io's close proximity to Jupiter's clouds and strong magnetic activity, observing the moon presents a set of distinctive challenges. Not since the Galileo spacecraft in the early 2000s have images of such clarity been captured.
Juno: Continuing Galileo’s Legacy
The Juno spacecraft, which now rivals the observations made by the Galileo mission, passed a mere 1,500 km above Io's surface on December 30. This flyby provided an excellent opportunity for the spacecraft's specialized sensors to gather further data.
Public Benefit and the Role of Junocam
But it's not just the scientific community that is benefitting from Juno's journey. The wider public can also access images from the Junocam, which NASA freely provides, allowing digital artists to reinterpret them in different ways. This camera, which wasn't initially planned to be onboard Juno, was a result of public lobbying.
Despite a weaker electronic shielding and occasional malfunctions, the Junocam has managed to capture stunning pictures of Jupiter's atmosphere and the Galilean moons. By repeatedly flying by Io since last spring, it has contributed to the observation of surface and volcanic activity changes on the moon.
More Exploration to Come
The next flyby at an altitude of 1,500 km is scheduled for February 2. Following this, Juno will begin to gradually move away from Io until September 2025. At the end of its mission, Juno will be disintegrated in Jupiter's clouds once fuel is exhausted.