As New Horizons Speeds Toward Pluto, We Revisit Its Gorgeous Jupiter Pics

Pluto won’t be the only world the New Horizons spacecraft gets a good look at.

In 2007, New Horizons caught an angry volcano in the act of exploding. Blasting plumes of material 180 miles into the sky, the volcano is called Tvashtar — and it’s located on Io, one of Jupiter’s four largest moons.


Scheduled to rendezvous with Pluto in just three days (!), New Horizons captured this glimpse of Io during a tour of the Jupiter system in 2007. It used that encounter to uncover information about the giant planet and its enigmatic moons.

Why Jupiter? Even though New Horizons is the fastest spacecraft ever launched, it needed a bit of help on its 3-billion-mile journey to Pluto. As the spacecraft swung around Jupiter, it used the planet’s gravity as a speed booster and ultimately shaved almost four years off its total travel time to Pluto. (Learn more about the historic mission to Pluto on the National Geographic Channel.)

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Eclipsed by Jupiter’s shadow, Io’s glowing lava and eerie auroras glimmer in the dark. (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

But in addition to simply getting to Pluto sooner, New Horizons used the opportunity to do a bit of science. Flying through the Jupiter system let the spacecraft and its team not only test the on-board instruments, but address some outstanding questions about how Jupiter works. In all, New Horizons made around 700 observations during its visit — many more observations than it will make during next week’s Pluto flyby.

In addition to beautiful images (some of which are in the gallery above), the spacecraft returned data about Jupiter’s weather systems — such as polar lightning and ammonia clouds — and the planet’s auroras, its thin, moon-sculpted rings, and magnetic tail. Finally, it took a really good look at Io, the most volcanic body in the solar system, and mapped the regions where the moon was erupting.

One-Hour Special Mission Pluto hosted by Jason Silva premieres Tuesday, July 14 at 9/8c on National Geographic Channel.