Great Explorations Revisited: The 2007 Flyby of Jupiter by New Horizons Spacecraft

Jan 27, 2020
February 28, 2022

On discoveries alone, the flyby of NASA‘s New Horizons past Jupiter on February 28, 2007, was a successful mission in its own right. While the Pluto-bound spacecraft was zooming past the giant planet for a gravity boost toward its main targets in the distant reaches of the solar system, and testing out its science instruments just a year after launch, New Horizons revealed the Jovian system in ways never seen before.

New Horizons was actually the eighth spacecraft to visit Jupiter. But its path past the giant planet – along with a sophisticated instrument payload and some great timing -- allowed it to explore exciting new details of the Jupiter system: lightning near the planet's poles; the life cycle of fresh ammonia clouds; boulder-size clumps racing through the planet's faint rings; a developing storm tagged the Little Red Spot; the structure inside volcanic eruptions on the moon Io; and charged-particle clumps traversing the length of Jupiter's magnetic tail that New Horizons was the first to reconnoiter.

In the 15 years since that flyby, results from New Horizons’ Jupiter exploration have appeared in dozens of research papers and widespread conference presentations -- starting with a special issue of the prestigious journal Science in October 2007.

The technology onboard the New Horizons spacecraft also evolved into a new series of remote-exploration tools. Next-gen versions of the Alice ultraviolet spectrometer, which probed Jupiter’s atmosphere for data on cloud structure and composition, are set to return to the solar system’s largest planet on NASA’s Europa Clipper and the European Space Agency’s Jupiter Icy moons Explorer (JUICE) missions. NASA’s Lucy asteroid mission is carrying a new version of the Ralph color imager, and new instruments based on Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), the telescopic camera that spied Io’s Tvashtar volcano in mid-eruption, among other amazing sights, are flying on Lucy as well as NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission.

“LORRI was optimized for observing the Pluto system, where sunlight is about 45 times fainter than in the Jovian system,” said Hal Weaver, the New Horizons project scientist and LORRI principal investigator from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. “So we were thrilled to discover that, by keeping exposure times to just a few milliseconds, we could capture beautiful images of Jupiter and its moons without saturating the camera.”

New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute, said the Jupiter flyby far exceeded the mission team’s expectations.

"Not only did the Jupiter encounter prove out our spacecraft and put us on course to explore Pluto in 2015,” he said, “it was a chance for us to take sophisticated instruments to places in the Jovian system where other spacecraft hadn’t gone, to pioneer some of the science that NASA’s Juno mission is now undertaking at Jupiter, and to return important data that added tremendously to our understanding of the solar system's largest planet and its moons, rings and atmosphere."

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New Horizons has truly been a voyage of wonder.