On March 8, 1979, as Voyager 1 was speeding away from Jupiter after its historic flyby of the gas giant three days earlier, it looked back at the planet and took some navigational images. Linda Morabito, one of the engineers in charge of using these navigational images to make sure the spacecraft was on its planned course, took one look at the image on the right, an overexposed image of the moon Io, and decided that it had captured something very unusual. On the limb of the moon was this strange shape that at first glance looked like another moon partly hidden behind Io. She and her fellow engineers immediately realized that this was not possible, and that the object was probably a plume coming up from the surface of Io. To their glee, they had taken the first image of an eruption of active volcano on another world!
Today, on the astro-ph preprint website, Morabito has published a minute-by-minute account of that discovery. It makes for fascinating reading, partly because the discovery was so exciting and unique, partly because it illustrated starkly the human nature of science research, and partly because of the amazing circumstances of that discovery. Only one week before, scientists has predicted active volcanism on Io in a paper published in the journal Science. To quote her abstract:
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