( Reuters ) - A NASA spacecraft observed lightning strikes at Jupiter's poles as it provided insights into the giant planet's dynamic atmosphere as well as volcanic activity on one of its moons, scientists said on Tuesday.
The New Horizons spacecraft, passing by the solar system's largest planet en route to the dwarf planet Pluto, also snapped images of the tiny rings encircling Jupiter, studied a huge, swirling storm and explored the planet's long magnetic tail.
NASA released full scientific findings from the mission in the journal Science after discussing highlights earlier this year.
New Horizons zipped by Jupiter earlier this year, making its closest pass on February 28, and used the gaseous planet's considerable gravity to slingshot itself toward Pluto. The piano-sized robotic probe is due to reach Pluto in July 2015.
But while in the neighborhood, the fastest spacecraft ever launched from Earth aimed its cameras and sensors at Jupiter and its four largest moons, making about 700 observations.
"This was drive-by science at its best," Jeff Moore of the New Horizons Jupiter Encounter science team at NASA Ames Research Center in California, said in a telephone interview. "The encounter went off as well as it possibly could have."
Io is known for having active volcanoes on its surface. One of the 11 volcanic plumes detected was particularly dramatic.
Rising 200 miles into space from the volcano Tvashtar was an umbrella-shaped plume of dust, captured in what scientists called the best images ever taken of a giant eruption from Io.