Currents between Jupiters poles and three of its moons mark its auroras.
Cassinis image of the looping magnetic fields that surround Jupiter.
Two space probes lift the lid on Jupiter’s magnetosphere.
Even Stanley Kubrick couldn’t have directed it better. In the first days of 2001, two spacecraft, Cassini and Galileo, met at Jupiter 400 million kilometres from Earth, to study the mysterious forces emanating from the giant planet.
The first analysis of the data they sent back has now been unveiled1-7. It paints a dramatic picture of the planet’s invisible magnetosphere - looping magnetic fields, crackling radio emissions and intense belts of radiation surround Jupiter and interact with the solar wind and the planet itself.
The cosmic conjunction wasn’t planned. Cassini was waltzing past Jupiter, using the giant’s gravitational energy to send it on to its final destination, Saturn. Galileo, an ageing probe that had been closely orbiting Jupiter and was thought to have stopped working, was found to be still going strong.
Planetary scientists "seized the opportunity offered by this first-ever conjunction of two spacecraft at an outer planet", says Thomas Hill, of Rice University in Houston, Texas.
"There will be people looking at the data for many years," says Spilker. Which is just as well. Another such rendezvous "would not be repeated for the foreseeable future", says Cassini project scientist Dennis Matson.
The chance meeting was short-lived. Cassini has since flown on towards Saturn, due to arrive there in 2004. Galileo will make the ultimate sacrifice and descend into Jupiter’s atmosphere late next year.
TOM CLARKE | © Nature News Service
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