|Comparing Jupiter with Jupiter-like planets that orbit other stars can teach us about those distant worlds, and reveal new insights about our own solar system's formation and evolution. (Illustration)|
Topics: Astronomy, Astrophysics, Exoplanets, NASA, Planetary Science, Space Exploration
Our galaxy is home to a bewildering variety of Jupiter-like worlds: hot ones, cold ones, giant versions of our own giant, pint-sized pretenders only half as big around.
Astronomers say that in our galaxy alone, a billion or more such Jupiter-like worlds could be orbiting stars other than our sun. And we can use them to gain a better understanding of our solar system and our galactic environment, including the prospects for finding life.
It turns out the inverse is also true -- we can turn our instruments and probes to our own backyard, and view Jupiter as if it were an exoplanet to learn more about those far-off worlds. The best-ever chance to do this is now, with Juno, a NASA probe the size of a basketball court, which arrived at Jupiter in July to begin a series of long, looping orbits around our solar system's largest planet. Juno is expected to capture the most detailed images of the gas giant ever seen. And with a suite of science instruments, Juno will plumb the secrets beneath Jupiter's roiling atmosphere.
It will be a very long time, if ever, before scientists who study exoplanets -- planets orbiting other stars -- get the chance to watch an interstellar probe coast into orbit around an exo-Jupiter, dozens or hundreds of light-years away. But if they ever do, it's a safe bet the scene will summon echoes of Juno.
NASA: Jupiter's Extended Family? A Billion or More