Category: cassini

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Spooky Sounds from Across the Solar System

Soaring to the depths of our universe, gallant spacecraft roam the cosmos, snapping images of celestial wonders. Some spacecraft have instruments capable of capturing radio emissions. When scientists convert these to sound waves, the results are eerie to hear.

In time for Halloween, we’ve put together a compilation of elusive “sounds” of howling planets and whistling helium that is sure to make your skin crawl.

Listen to a few here and visit our Soundcloud for more spooky sounds. 

Cassini Ring Crossing

This eerie audio represents data collected by our Cassini spacecraft, as it crossed through the gap between Saturn and its rings on April 26, 2017, during the first dive of the mission’s Grand Finale. The instrument is able to record ring particles striking the spacecraft in its data. In the data from this dive, there is virtually no detectable peak in pops and cracks that represent ring particles striking the spacecraft. The lack of discernible pops and cracks indicates the region is largely free of small particles. 

Voyager Tsunami Waves in Interstellar Space 

Listen to this howling audio from our Voyager 1 spacecraft. Voyager 1 has experienced three “tsunami waves” in interstellar space. This kind of wave occurs as a result of a coronal mass ejection erupting from the Sun. The most recent tsunami wave that Voyager experienced began in February 2014, and may still be going. Listen to how these waves cause surrounding ionized matter to ring like a bell.

Voyager Sounds of Interstellar Space

Our Voyager 1 spacecraft captured these high-pitched, spooky sounds of interstellar space from October to November 2012 and April to May 2013.

The soundtrack reproduces the amplitude and frequency of the plasma waves as “heard” by Voyager 1. The waves detected by the instrument antennas can be simply amplified and played through a speaker. These frequencies are within the range heard by human ears.

When scientists extrapolated this line even further back in time (not shown), they deduced that Voyager 1 first encountered interstellar plasma in August 2012.

Plasma Sounds at Jupiter

Ominous sounds of plasma! Our Juno spacecraft has observed plasma wave signals from Jupiter’s ionosphere. The results in this video show an increasing plasma density as Juno descended into Jupiter’s ionosphere during its close pass by Jupiter on February 2, 2017.  

Roar of Jupiter

Juno’s Waves instrument recorded this supernatural sounding encounter with the bow shock over the course of about two hours on June 24, 2016. “Bow shock” is where the supersonic solar wind is heated and slowed by Jupiter’s magnetosphere. It is analogous to a sonic boom on Earth. The next day, June 25, 2016, the Waves instrument witnessed the crossing of the magnetopause. “Trapped continuum radiation” refers to waves trapped in a low-density cavity in Jupiter’s magnetosphere.

Visit the NASA Soundcloud for more spooky space sounds: https://soundcloud.com/nasa/sets/spookyspacesounds

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Solar System: 10 Things to Know This Week

Need some space? 

Here are 10 perspective-building images for your computer desktop and mobile device wallpaper. 

These are all real images, sent very recently by our planetary missions throughout the solar system. 

1. Our Sun

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Warm up with this view from our Solar Dynamics Observatory showing active regions on the Sun in October 2017. They were observed in a wavelength of extreme ultraviolet light that reveals plasma heated to over a million degrees. 

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2. Jupiter Up-Close

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This series of enhanced-color images shows Jupiter up close and personal, as our Juno spacecraft performed its eighth flyby of the gas giant planet on Sept. 1, 2017. 

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3. Saturn’s and Its Rings

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With this mosaic from Oct. 28, 2016, our Cassini spacecraft captured one of its last looks at Saturn and its main rings from a distance. 

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4. Gale Crater on Mars

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This look from our Curiosity Mars rover includes several geological layers in Gale crater to be examined by the mission, as well as the higher reaches of Mount Sharp beyond. The redder rocks of the foreground are part of the Murray formation. Pale gray rocks in the middle distance of the right half of the image are in the Clay Unit. A band between those terrains is “Vera Rubin Ridge,” where the rover is working currently. The view combines six images taken with the rover’s Mast Camera (Mastcam) on Jan. 24, 2017. 

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5. Sliver of Saturn

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Cassini peers toward a sliver of Saturn’s sunlit atmosphere while the icy rings stretch across the foreground as a dark band on March 31, 2017. This view looks toward the unilluminated side of the rings from about 7 degrees below the ring plane. 

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6. Dwarf Planet Ceres 

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This image of the limb of dwarf planet Ceres shows a section of the northern hemisphere, as seen by our Dawn mission. Prominently featured is Occator Crater, home of Ceres’ intriguing “bright spots.” The latest research suggests that the bright material in this crater is comprised of salts left behind after a briny liquid emerged from below. 

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7. Martian Crater

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This image from our Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) shows a crater in the region with the most impressive known gully activity in Mars’ northern hemisphere. Gullies are active in the winter due to carbon dioxide frost, but northern winters are shorter and warmer than southern winters, so there is less frost and less gully activity. 

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8. Dynamic Storm on Jupiter

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A dynamic storm at the southern edge of Jupiter’s northern polar region dominates this Jovian cloudscape, courtesy of Juno. This storm is a long-lived anticyclonic oval named North North Temperate Little Red Spot 1. Citizen scientists Gerald Eichstädt and Seán Doran processed this image using data from the JunoCam imager. 

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9. Rings Beyond Saturn’s Sunlit Horizon 

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This false-color view from the Cassini spacecraft gazes toward the rings beyond Saturn’s sunlit horizon. Along the limb (the planet’s edge) at left can be seen a thin, detached haze. 

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10. Saturn’s Ocean-Bearing Moon Enceladus

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Saturn’s active, ocean-bearing moon Enceladus sinks behind the giant planet in a farewell portrait from Cassini. This view of Enceladus was taken by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft on Sept. 13, 2017. It is among the last images Cassini sent back before its mission came to an end on Sept. 15, after nearly 20 years in space. 

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Applying Wallpaper:
1. Click on the screen resolution you would like to use.
2. Right-click on the image (control-click on a Mac) and select the option ‘Set the Background’ or ‘Set as Wallpaper’ (or similar).

Places to look for more of our pictures include solarsystem.nasa.gov/galleries, images.nasa.gov and www.jpl.nasa.gov/spaceimages.

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Thank you, Cassini.

Thank you, Cassini.

Cassini Mission: What’s Next?

It’s Friday, Sept. 15 and our Cassini mission has officially come to a spectacular end. The final signal from the spacecraft was received here on Earth at 7:55 a.m. EDT after a fateful plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere.

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After losing contact with Earth, the spacecraft burned up like a meteor, becoming part of the planet itself.

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Although bittersweet, Cassini’s triumphant end is the culmination of a nearly 20-year mission that overflowed with discoveries.

But, what happens now?

Mission Team and Data

Now that the spacecraft is gone, most of the team’s engineers are migrating to other planetary missions, where they will continue to contribute to the work we’re doing to explore our solar system and beyond.

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Mission scientists will keep working for the coming years to ensure that we fully understand all of the data acquired during the mission’s Grand Finale. They will carefully calibrate and study all of this data so that it can be entered into the Planetary Data System. From there, it will be accessible to future scientists for years to come.

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Even beyond that, the science data will continue to be worked on for decades, possibly more, depending on the research grants that are acquired.

Other team members, some who have spent most of their career working on the Cassini mission, will use this as an opportunity to retire.

Future Missions

In revealing that Enceladus has essentially all the ingredients needed for life, the mission energized a pivot to the exploration of “ocean worlds” that has been sweeping planetary science over the past couple of decades.

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Jupiter’s moon Europa has been a prime target for future exploration, and many lessons during Cassini’s mission are being applied in planning our Europa Clipper mission, planned for launch in the 2020s.

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The mission will orbit the giant planet, Jupiter, using gravitational assists from large moons to maneuver the spacecraft into repeated close encounters, much as Cassini has used the gravity of Titan to continually shape the spacecraft’s course.

In addition, many engineers and scientists from Cassini are serving on the new Europa Clipper mission and helping to shape its science investigations. For example, several members of the Cassini Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer team are developing an extremely sensitive, next-generation version of their instrument for flight on Europa Clipper. What Cassini has learned about flying through the plume of material spraying from Enceladus will be invaluable to Europa Clipper, should plume activity be confirmed on Europa.

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In the decades following Cassini, scientists hope to return to the Saturn system to follow up on the mission’s many discoveries. Mission concepts under consideration include robotic explorers to drift on the methane seas of Titan and fly through the Enceladus plume to collect and analyze samples for signs of biology.

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Atmospheric probes to all four of the outer planets have long been a priority for the science community, and the most recent recommendations from a group of planetary scientists shows interest in sending such a mission to Saturn. By directly sampling Saturn’s upper atmosphere during its last orbits and final plunge, Cassini is laying the groundwork for an potential Saturn atmospheric probe.

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A variety of potential mission concepts are discussed in a recently completed study — including orbiters, flybys and probes that would dive into Uranus’ atmosphere to study its composition. Future missions to the ice giants might explore those worlds using an approach similar to Cassini’s mission.

Learn more about the Cassini mission and its Grand Finale HERE.

Follow the mission on Facebook and Twitter for the latest updates.

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Cassini Spacecraft: Top Discoveries

Our Cassini spacecraft has been exploring Saturn, its stunning rings and its strange and beautiful moons for more than a decade.

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Having expended almost every bit of the rocket propellant it carried to Saturn, operators are deliberately plunging Cassini into the planet to ensure Saturn’s moons will remain pristine for future exploration – in particular, the ice-covered, ocean-bearing moon Enceladus, but also Titan, with its intriguing pre-biotic chemistry.

Let’s take a look back at some of Cassini’s top discoveries:  

Titan

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Under its shroud of haze, Saturn’s planet-sized moon Titan hides dunes, mountains of water ice and rivers and seas of liquid methane. Of the hundreds of moons in our solar system, Titan is the only one with a dense atmosphere and large liquid reservoirs on its surface, making it in some ways more like a terrestrial planet.

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Both Earth and Titan have nitrogen-dominated atmospheres – over 95% nitrogen in Titan’s case. However, unlike Earth, Titan has very little oxygen; the rest of the atmosphere is mostly methane and traced amounts of other gases, including ethane.

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There are three large seas, all located close to the moon’s north pole, surrounded by numerous smaller lakes in the northern hemisphere. Just one large lake has been found in the southern hemisphere.

Enceladus

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The moon Enceladus conceals a global ocean of salty liquid water beneath its icy surface. Some of that water even shoots out into space, creating an immense plume!

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For decades, scientists didn’t know why Enceladus was the brightest world in the solar system, or how it related to Saturn’s E ring. Cassini found that both the fresh coating on its surface, and icy material in the E ring originate from vents connected to a global subsurface saltwater ocean that might host hydrothermal vents.

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With its global ocean, unique chemistry and internal heat, Enceladus has become a promising lead in our search for worlds where life could exist.

Iapetus

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Saturn’s two-toned moon Iapetus gets its odd coloring from reddish dust in its orbital path that is swept up and lands on the leading face of the moon.

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The most unique, and perhaps most remarkable feature discovered on Iapetus in Cassini images is a topographic ridge that coincides almost exactly with the geographic equator. The physical origin of the ridge has yet to be explained…

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It is not yet year whether the ridge is a mountain belt that has folded upward, or an extensional crack in the surface through which material from inside Iapetus erupted onto the surface and accumulated locally.

Saturn’s Rings

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Saturn’s rings are made of countless particles of ice and dust, which Saturn’s moons push and tug, creating gaps and waves.

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Scientists have never before studied the size, temperature, composition and distribution of Saturn’s rings from Saturn obit. Cassini has captured extraordinary ring-moon interactions, observed the lowest ring-temperature ever recorded at Saturn, discovered that the moon Enceladus is the source for Saturn’s E ring, and viewed the rings at equinox when sunlight strikes the rings edge-on, revealing never-before-seen ring features and details.

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Cassini also studied features in Saturn’s rings called “spokes,” which can be longer than the diameter of Earth. Scientists think they’re made of thin icy particles that are lifted by an electrostatic charge and only last a few hours.  

Auroras

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The powerful magnetic field that permeates Saturn is strange because it lines up with the planet’s poles. But just like Earth’s field, it all creates shimmering auroras.

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Auroras on Saturn occur in a process similar to Earth’s northern and southern lights. Particles from the solar wind are channeled by Saturn’s magnetic field toward the planet’s poles, where they interact with electrically charged gas (plasma) in the upper atmosphere and emit light.  

Turbulent Atmosphere

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Saturn’s turbulent atmosphere churns with immense storms and a striking, six-sided jet stream near its north pole.

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Saturn’s north and south poles are also each beautifully (and violently) decorated by a colossal swirling storm. Cassini got an up-close look at the north polar storm and scientists found that the storm’s eye was about 50 times wider than an Earth hurricane’s eye.

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Unlike the Earth hurricanes that are driven by warm ocean waters, Saturn’s polar vortexes aren’t actually hurricanes. They’re hurricane-like though, and even contain lightning. Cassini’s instruments have ‘heard’ lightning ever since entering Saturn orbit in 2004, in the form of radio waves. But it wasn’t until 2009 that Cassini’s cameras captured images of Saturnian lighting for the first time.

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Cassini scientists assembled a short video of it, the first video of lightning discharging on a planet other than Earth.

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Cassini’s adventure will end soon because it’s almost out of fuel. So to avoid possibly ever contaminating moons like Enceladus or Titan, on Sept. 15 it will intentionally dive into Saturn’s atmosphere.

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The spacecraft is expected to lose radio contact with Earth within about one to two minutes after beginning its decent into Saturn’s upper atmosphere. But on the way down, before contact is lost, eight of Cassini’s 12 science instruments will be operating! More details on the spacecraft’s final decent can be found HERE.

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After 20 years in space, the Cassini spacecraft is running out…

After 20 years in space, the Cassini spacecraft is running out of fuel. In 2010, Cassini began a seven-year mission extension in which the plan was to expend all of the spacecraft’s propellant exploring Saturn and its moons. This led to the Grand Finale and ends with a plunge into the planet’s atmosphere at 6:32 a.m. EDT on Friday, Sept. 15.

The spacecraft will ram through Saturn’s atmosphere at four times the speed of a re-entry vehicle entering Earth’s atmosphere, and Cassini has no heat shield. So temperatures around the spacecraft will increase by 30-to-100 times per minute, and every component of the spacecraft will disintegrate over the next couple of minutes…

Cassini’s gold-colored multi-layer insulation blankets will char and break apart, and then the spacecraft’s carbon fiber epoxy structures, such as the 11-foot (3-meter) wide high-gain antenna and the 30-foot (11-meter) long magnetometer boom, will weaken and break apart. Components mounted on the outside of the central body of the spacecraft will then break apart, followed by the leading face of the spacecraft itself.

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Our Cassini spacecraft has been traveling in space for almost 20…

Our Cassini spacecraft has been traveling in space for almost 20 years, exploring Saturn, its rings and even some of its moons. This mission has revealed never-before-seen events that are changing our understanding of how planetary systems form and what conditions might lead to habitats for life.

Cassini will complete its remarkable story of exploration with an intentional plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere, ending its mission.  

Participate in our Grand Finale Events

Wednesday, Sept. 13

1 p.m. EDT – News Conference from our Jet Propulsion Laboratory with a detailed preview of final mission activities
Watch HERE.

Thursday, Sept 14

4:00 – 5:00 p.m. EDT – NASA Social Live Broadcast with mission experts
Watch HERE.

Friday, Sept. 15

7:00 – 8:30 a.m. EDT – Live commentary on NASA TV and online of the spacecraft’s final dive into Saturn’s atmosphere.
Watch HERE.

Around 8:00 a.m. EDT – Expected time of last signal and science data from Cassini
Watch HERE.

9:30 a.m. EDT – Post-mission news conference
Watch HERE.

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Solar System: Things to Know This Week

Almost every day, we receive a message from a spacecraft more than 10.6 billion miles (about 17 billion km) away.

At that unimaginable distance, it takes the radio signal almost 16 hours to arrive. The spacecraft is Voyager 2, which launched 40 years ago this month. It’s still operating, sending back dispatches from the dark reaches well beyond the orbit of Pluto. Even now, scientists are still actively exploring the outer boundaries of the solar system using Voyager 2, decades after its “Grand Tour” of the giant planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune revealed their splendors like never before. This week, we recall 10 highlights from one of the most epic voyages in human history.

1. A Journey of 10 Billion Miles Begins With the First Step

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Voyager 2 set out from Earth on Aug. 20, 1977. Even though it launched before its twin spacecraft, Voyager 1, it carried the ‘2’ moniker because mission planners knew its trajectory would bring it to Jupiter after Voyager 1’s arrival there.

2. The Grand Tour

Voyager 2’s trajectory was special because it took advantage of a rare orbital alignment to fly by all four gas giant planets: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. It was the first, and so far the only, spacecraft to carry out a close-up reconnaissance of Uranus and Neptune.

3. Not-So-Gentle Giant

Voyager 2 flew by Jupiter in April 1979, capturing striking images of the planet’s volcanic moon Io and its violent storms larger than the entire Earth.

4. Saturn’s Not the Only One

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Jupiter has its own ring system, and Voyager 2 provided the first pictures.

5. An Ocean Under Ice

During its Jupiter encounter, Voyager 2 obtained close-up looks at Jupiter’s moon Europa, including linear cracks and other features which first led scientists to realize Europa probably hides a vast sea of liquid water beneath an icy shell, the first known world outside Earth that could have an ocean.

6. Ringworld, the Prequel

Voyager 2 zoomed through the Saturn system in August 1981. It saw hints of mysterious features that the Cassini mission would later reveal in stunning detail, including Enceladus, with its bright surface that suggested geologic activity, and Saturn’s intriguing hexagonal jet stream.

7. Swiftly by a Tilted Planet

In January 1984, Voyager offered humanity its first detailed look at the seventh planet, Uranus, the only one tilted on its side relative to the Sun. Voyager images revealed 11 new moons, including Juliet, Puck, Cressida, Rosalind and Ophelia. The moon Miranda presented a bizarre landscape that left scientists debating its origins for years. Voyager also captured views of the planet’s lacy rings, and found that it is the coldest in the solar system, at minus 353 degrees Fahrenheit (59 Kelvin).

8. In Neptune’s Blue Realm

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After picking up a gravitational speed boost at each previous planetary encounter, by the time Voyager reached Neptune it shot through the entire system of Neptunian rings and moons in a matter of hours. Voyager saw a titanic storm in Neptune’s windy atmosphere, discovered new moons, and revealed active geysers erupting on Triton’s frigid surface.

9. Postcards From the Edge

Although their cameras are no longer functioning, other key scientific instruments on board both Voyager spacecraft are still collecting data. Voyager 1 is exploring the boundary between the Sun’s realm and interstellar space. Voyager 2 hasn’t traveled quite as far. In September 2007, it crossed the termination shock (where the speed of the solar wind of charged particles drops below the speed of sound) at a point about 84 Astronomical Units from the Sun (more than twice the distance to Pluto). See https://go.nasa.gov/2uwrndb

10. Ride Along

Voyager’s mission is far from over. Engineers estimate the spacecraft will have enough power to operate into the mid-2020s. You can ride along at www.jpl.nasa.gov/voyager, or by following @NASAVoyager on Twitter and by downloading our free 3-D space simulation software, Eyes on the Solar System at eyes.nasa.gov.

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One more thing: Inspired by the messages of goodwill carried on Voyager’s Golden Record, you’re invited to send a short, uplifting message to Voyager and all that lies beyond it via social media. With input from the Voyager team and a public vote, one of these messages will be selected for us to beam into interstellar space on Sept. 5, 2017—the 40th anniversary of Voyager 1’s launch. Post your message on social media with the tag #MessageToVoyager by Aug 15. Details: www.jpl.nasa.gov/voyager/message/

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Magnetospheres: How Do They Work?

The sun, Earth, and many other planets are surrounded by giant magnetic bubbles.

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Space may seem empty, but it’s actually a dynamic place, dominated by invisible forces, including those created by magnetic fields.  Magnetospheres – the areas around planets and stars dominated by their magnetic fields – are found throughout our solar system. They deflect high-energy, charged particles called cosmic rays that are mostly spewed out by the sun, but can also come from interstellar space. Along with atmospheres, they help protect the planets’ surfaces from this harmful radiation.

It’s possible that Earth’s protective magnetosphere was essential for the development of conditions friendly to life, so finding magnetospheres around other planets is a big step toward determining if they could support life.

But not all magnetospheres are created equal – even in our own backyard, not all planets in our solar system have a magnetic field, and the ones we have observed are all surprisingly different.

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Earth’s magnetosphere is created by the constantly moving molten metal inside Earth. This invisible “force field” around our planet has an ice cream cone-like shape, with a rounded front and a long, trailing tail that faces away from the sun. The magnetosphere is shaped that way because of the constant pressure from the solar wind and magnetic fields on the sun-facing side.

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Earth’s magnetosphere deflects most charged particles away from our planet – but some do become trapped in the magnetic field and create auroras when they rain down into the atmosphere.

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We have several missions that study Earth’s magnetosphere – including the Magnetospheric Multiscale mission, Van Allen Probes, and Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms (also known as THEMIS) – along with a host of other satellites that study other aspects of the sun-Earth connection.

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Mercury, with a substantial iron-rich core, has a magnetic field that is only about 1% as strong as Earth’s. It is thought that the planet’s magnetosphere is stifled by the intense solar wind, limiting its strength, although even without this effect, it still would not be as strong as Earth’s. The MESSENGER satellite orbited Mercury from 2011 to 2015, helping us understand our tiny terrestrial neighbor.

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After the sun, Jupiter has by far the biggest magnetosphere in our solar system – it stretches about 12 million miles from east to west, almost 15 times the width of the sun. (Earth’s, on the other hand, could easily fit inside the sun.) Jupiter does not have a molten metal core like Earth; instead, its magnetic field is created by a core of compressed liquid metallic hydrogen.

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One of Jupiter’s moons, Io, has intense volcanic activity that spews particles into Jupiter’s magnetosphere. These particles create intense radiation belts and the large auroras around Jupiter’s poles.

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Ganymede, Jupiter’s largest moon, also has its own magnetic field and magnetosphere – making it the only moon with one. Its weak field, nestled in Jupiter’s enormous shell, scarcely ruffles the planet’s magnetic field.

Our Juno mission orbits inside the Jovian magnetosphere sending back observations so we can better understand this region. Previous observations have been received from Pioneers 10 and 11, Voyagers 1 and 2, Ulysses, Galileo and Cassini in their flybys and orbits around Jupiter.

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Saturn’s moon Enceladus transforms the shape of its magnetosphere. Active geysers on the moon’s south pole eject oxygen and water molecules into the space around the planet. These particles, much like Io’s volcanic emissions at Jupiter, generate the auroras around the planet’s poles. Our Cassini mission studies Saturn’s magnetic field and auroras, as well as its moon Enceladus.

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Uranus’ magnetosphere wasn’t discovered until 1986 when data from Voyager 2’s flyby revealed weak, variable radio emissions. Uranus’ magnetic field and rotation axis are out of alignment by 59 degrees, unlike Earth’s, whose magnetic field and rotation axis differ by only 11 degrees. On top of that, the magnetic field axis does not go through the center of the planet, so the strength of the magnetic field varies dramatically across the surface. This misalignment also means that Uranus’ magnetotail – the part of the magnetosphere that trails away from the sun – is twisted into a long corkscrew.

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Neptune’s magnetosphere is also tilted from its rotation axis, but only by 47. Just like on Uranus, Neptune’s magnetic field strength varies across the planet. This also means that auroras can be seen away from the planet’s poles – not just at high latitudes, like on Earth, Jupiter and Saturn.

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Does Every Planet Have a Magnetosphere?

Neither Venus nor Mars have global magnetic fields, although the interaction of the solar wind with their atmospheres does produce what scientists call an “induced magnetosphere.” Around these planets, the atmosphere deflects the solar wind particles, causing the solar wind’s magnetic field to wrap around the planet in a shape similar to Earth’s magnetosphere.

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What About Beyond Our Solar System?

Outside of our solar system, auroras, which indicate the presence of a magnetosphere, have been spotted on brown dwarfs – objects that are bigger than planets but smaller than stars.

There’s also evidence to suggest that some giant exoplanets have magnetospheres. As scientists now believe that Earth’s protective magnetosphere was essential for the development of conditions friendly to life, finding magnetospheres around exoplanets is a big step in finding habitable worlds.  

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