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NASA lunar probe captures ghostly image of Jupiter and its moons

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is usually gazing at the moon, but it pulled off a charming portrait of the gas giant.

NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter captured this far-off portrait of Jupiter in August 2021.

NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

It looks like a marble sitting on velvet. NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which has been in residence around our moon since 2009, looked out into the solar system and captured an ethereal snapshot of stormy gas giant planet Jupiter. 

The image comes from late August. Brett Denevi, deputy principal investigator for the LRO Camera, highlighted the portrait on Twitter last week, writing, "From the Moon to Jupiter, with Love."   

The image is extraordinary not for its clarity, but for what it represents: a tremendous effort from a spacecraft tasked with orbiting and imaging our moon. LRO is designed to gaze at the moon's surface. It's old, and some of its equipment isn't working like it used to. 

This higher-contrast version of LRO's Jupiter image shows where four of the gas giant's moons can be located in the image.

NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

"The spacecraft is also gracefully aging so the solar panels must be turned away from the sun for as little time as possible," Denevi wrote in a statement. "And then adding in other thermal and timing constraints, the operations team had to work hard to find just the right time to turn the spacecraft toward the outer solar system and scan across Jupiter to get this image."

If you look closely at the snapshot, you'll noticed what looks like a wispy extension on the right side of Jupiter. An annotated version of the image points out that the protrusion is actually the planet's moons Europa and Io. The higher-contrast shot helps the moons Ganymede and Callisto pop out as well.

Thanks to NASA's Juno mission, we have all sorts of lavish close-up views of Jupiter with its swirling storms. Those Juno images are eye-popping, but LRO's stripped-down vision of the planet is a reminder of the versatility and longevity of NASA's lunar spacecraft.

LRO can help us imagine a future where humans are visiting the moon more often and surveying the solar system from a place that's both close and far away.