NASA’s $1 billion Jupiter probe just sent back breathtaking new images of the gas giant

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An illustration of NASA’s Juno probe at Jupiter.
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NASA/JPL-Caltech

A probe the size of a basketball court has taken unprecedented new images of Jupiter.

NASA’s $1 billion Juno spacecraft, launched in August 2011, took five years to reach and settle into orbit around the gas giant, which is more than 415 million miles from Earth.

The probe has so far photographed Jupiter’s poles for the first time, detected bizarre cloud formations, recorded mysterious auroras, and scanned deep into the planet’s thick cloud tops.

Juno repeatedly swings by Jupiter in a wide arc to minimize time inside the planet’s intense radiation belts, which can damage sensitive electronics.

NASA planned to fire Juno’s thrusters in October to increase the frequency of these flybys – from once every 53.5 days to every two weeks – but sticky engine valves botched that operation. So instead the maneuvers happen about once every two months.

Juno completed the fifth such maneuver on March 27, recording a fresh batch of images and streaming that raw data back to Earth – and now amateur astronomers are beginning to turn the gray, unprocessed photos into brilliant full-color images.

Here are a handful of our favorite shots from the fifth orbit, plus a few other images from previous flybys that space fans have recently uploaded to Juno’s website.


This new image, processed by amateur astronomer Roman Tkachenko, shows Jupiter’s north pole in all its stormy glory.

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NASA/SwRI/MSSS/Roman Tkachenko (CC BY)

Another person processed the same raw image to show more green-colored details.

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NASA/SwRI/MSSS

And here’s a close-up of Jupiter’s swirling cloud tops.

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NASA/SwRI/MSSS/Daiwensai-33 (CC BY)

This shot, put together by Gervasio Robles, merges three Juno flyby images to show Jupiter’s elusive south pole in full view.

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NASA/SwRI/MSSS/Gervasio Robles

Jason Major turned new image data into an animation that shows what it’s like to zoom over Jupiter’s north pole.

Source: Jason Major/Twitter


And Gerald Eichstädt merged all the images from the fifth flyby into a 3D animation that shows the whole trip from Juno’s viewpoint.

Source: Gerald Eichstädt/YouTube


Amateur astronomers have also been redeveloping older Juno images. These Jovian cloud-top images all came from the probe’s fourth flyby, on February 2.

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NASA/SwRI/MSSS/Uriel

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NASA/SwRI/MSSS/Daiwensai-33 (CC BY)

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NASA/SwRI/MSSS/Shawn Handran

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NASA/SwRI/MSSS/Geoff Pritchard (CC BY)

Juno’s next flyby of Jupiter should happen around May 19.

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NASA/JPL-Caltech

But Juno won’t fly forever.

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NASA/JPL

NASA will plunge the spacecraft into Jupiter’s clouds in 2018 or 2019. This will prevent it from spreading any bacteria from Earth on the gas giant’s icy, ocean-filled moons like Europa and Ganymede.

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An artist’s concept of Europa spewing water vapor from an ocean that’s concealed by a thick shell of ice.
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NASA/ESA/K. Retherford/SWRI