Thu, Oct 11, 2007 - Page 7 News List

NASA's `New Horizons' discovers lightning on Jupiter


The NASA spacecraft on the way to Pluto has discovered lightning in the polar regions of Jupiter, scientists said on Tuesday. It also found that the volcanically active moon Io belches out tonnes of material that travels hundreds of millions of kilometers down Jupiter's long magnetic tail.

The spacecraft, New Horizons, was launched in January of last year and made a close pass to Jupiter on Feb. 28 of this year to get a slingshot-like gravity boost designed to cut three years off its trip to Pluto, which it is to reach in July 2015.

New Horizons scientists took advantage of the trip around Jupiter to test the craft's seven scientific instruments and operational procedures in a trial run for Pluto, and said the exercise produced 700 separate observations that resulted in fundamental new discoveries.

"What we found blew a lot of people away," said Alan Stern, the principal investigator for the mission and head of the Science Directorate of NASA.

Besides confirming and amplifying findings from seven previous spacecraft that have visited Jupiter, it produced unexpected knowledge about the planet's environment, Stern said.

"We had a great set of instruments and showed up at the right time to make some fascinating observations," Stern said in an interview. "The results add tremendously to our understanding of Jupiter and its moons," he said.

Jupiter has lightning strikes near both poles, the team found, a phenomenon previously observed only on Earth.

On the moon Io, the closest to Jupiter, the spacecraft spotted 11 volcanic plumes.

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