NASA’s $1 billion Juno probe beamed back its latest photos of Jupiter on Wednesday, and the images are stunning.
The eye-popping new pictures feature the closest-ever views of the Great Red Spot (pictured above), a mega-storm between one and two times as wide as Earth.
While the public is having a field day processing the probe’s raw JunoCam data into colorful imagery, scientists are amazed by the unprecedented level of detail.
“I’m counting the times [I’ve picked] up my jaw in the last couple of days,” Glenn Orton, a lead Juno team member and a planetary scientist at NASA JPL, told Business Insider.
Here are a few things Orton and his colleagues have noticed in the images so far.
On Monday, Juno — a robot the size of a tennis court — flew about 5,600 miles above Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, which is closer than any spacecraft before it.
- NASA JPL/YouTube
This was Juno’s seventh pass around the gas-giant planet. The spacecraft swings by Jupiter once every 53.5 days at speeds approaching 130,000 mph. That makes close-up images very hard to capture.
That’s also why the full images from JunoCam, the probe’s visible-light camera, take the shape of an apple core.
- NASA-JPL/SwRI/MSSS/Ted Stryk
A few things caught the eye of Glenn Orton, who studies the atmospheres and clouds of the solar system’s outer planets.
An amateur turned JunoCam’s photos into this 3D illustration, and though Orton wasn’t sure how the image was made, he said it captures the storm’s dome-like shape. “Generally the Great Red Spot is much higher than any other cloud systems around it,” Orton said.
“If you take a dome and flatten it a little bit, and put a smaller dome in the middle, that’s the shape of [the Great Red Spot],” Orton added. He said you should also “surround it with a moat” to account for a groove the storm cuts into the surrounding cloud cover.
This image is Orton’s favorite: It shows the Great Red Spot in more detail than we’ve ever seen.
One thing the photo clearly shows is the deep red color of the storm’s central core. “It’s almost static, like the eye of a hurricane,” Orton said.
The storm’s ruddy red hue is like a kind of planetary sunburn, since it’s caused by ultraviolet light.
“In the lab, when ammonia gas and hydrocarbons contact, they created this reddish polymer,” Orton said of a recent NASA-JPL experiment involving two prominent gases in Jupiter’s atmosphere. “The longer they stayed in contact, the redder it got.”
This is why Orton and other scientists think the core’s lack of motion makes it so much redder.
At the edge of the storm’s core, Orton also noticed something familiar: “Those white flecks? Those are white, puffy clouds,” he said.
He was also struck by the clarity of cloud fronts pushing their way into other fronts within the storm. At the walls of the storm — where the red begins to fade — he said winds can exceed 300 mph.
When such winds climb up the outer wall of the Great Red Spot, the updrafts create ripples called “gravity waves,” since gravity’s pull is responsible for the effect.
“When I first saw this I said, ‘Wow!” Orton said. “This is right in the region where we expect to see a real drop-off in [wind speed] and see this effect. There’s some sort of wind shear going on.”
Source: Business Insider
Other researchers were floored by how different the storm looks from the previous images of it.
- NASA/JPL/Cornell University
“Wow, it has changed from the Galileo close-up images [taken] 20 years ago!” Amy Simon of NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center, told National Geographic. “Lots of interesting details for us to compare between the two.”
The Great Red Spot wasn’t the only object Juno snared during its flyby. Orton also pointed out this image of what’s called the “North North Temperate Zone Little Red Spot” (a comical name, since it’s about as big as Earth).
“This ~8000km diameter storm has been present on Jupiter since the mid-late 1990s and this is by FAR the clearest ever view of it,” Damian Peach, an astrophotographer in the UK, wrote in a Facebook post. “This storm has periodically turned red at times through its life.”
These photos are just a fraction of the data Juno is recording, since its visible-light camera — JunoCam — is one of eight different instruments on the probe. The others are currently monitoring auroras, internal structures, magnetic fields, radiation levels, and more.
Juno won’t fly forever, though. NASA plans to plunge the spacecraft into Jupiter’s clouds in 2018 or 2019. This will prevent the probe from spreading any bacteria from Earth to the gas giant’s icy, ocean-filled moons like Europa and Ganymede.