Voyage to Jupiter

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    Scienze, Saggistica

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The two Voyager encounters with Jupiter were periods unparalleled in degree and diversity of discovery. We had, of course, expected a number of discoveries because we had never before been able to study in detail the atmospheric motions on a planet that is a giant spinning sphere of hydrogen and helium, nor had we ever observed planet-sized objects such as the Jovian satellites Ganymede and Callisto, which are half water-ice. We had never been so close to a Moon-sized satellite such as Io, which was known to be dispersing sodium throughout its Jovian neighborhood and was thought to be generating a one-million-ampere electrical current that in some way results in billions of watts of radio emission from Jupiter.

The closer Voyager came to Jupiter the more apparent it became that the scientific richness of the Jovian system was going to greatly exceed even our most optimistic expectations. The growing realization among Voyager scientists of the wealth of discovery is apparent in their comments, discussions, and reports as recounted by the authors in their descriptions of the two encounters.

Although many of the discoveries occurred in the few weeks around each encounter, they were, of course, the result of more than those few weeks of effort. In fact, planning started a decade earlier, and the Voyager team of engineers and scientists had been designing, building, and planning for the encounters for seven years. The Pioneer spacecraft made the first reconnaissance of Jupiter in 1973-1974, providing key scientific results on which Voyager could build, and discoveries from continuing ground-based observations suggested specific Voyager studies. Voyager is itself just the second phase of exploration of the Jovian system. It will be followed by the Galileo program, which will directly probe Jupiter’s atmosphere and provide long-term observations of the Jovian system from an orbiting spacecraft. In the meantime, the Voyager spacecraft will continue their journey to Saturn, and possibly Uranus and Neptune, planets even more remote from Earth and about which we know even less than we knew of Jupiter before 1979.

As is clearly illustrated in this recounting of the voyage to Jupiter, scientific endeavors are human endeavors; just as Galileo could not have foreseen the advancement in our knowledge initiated by his discoveries of the four Jovian moons in 1610, neither can we fully comprehend the scientific heritage that our exploration of space is providing future generations.

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