Jupiter's atmosphere is still putting on a show
Jupiter’s atmosphere is quite simply a work of art. With an atmosphere that best resembles the sun, Jupiter is predominantly made up of hydrogen and helium, with trace amounts of ammonia, sulfur, methane and water vapor. Strong east-west winds in the planet’s upper atmosphere travel at 400 mph, with dark belts and light zones reflecting different compositions of chemicals.
Thanks to NASA’s Juno spacecraft (which has been orbiting Jupiter since July 2016), we can admire Jupiter’s beauty up-close.
On Feb. 12, Juno performed its 18th flyby from about 8,000 miles away and captured the image seen above. The swirling clouds and circular area are part of a jet stream region in the northern hemisphere called “Jet N6.” Citizen scientist Kevin M. Gill created this color-enhanced image by using data made available to the public.
In this series of images, you can see an anticyclonic white oval, called N5-AWO, in the far left image. As you move through the series, you can still see the white oval, albeit from a slightly different angle from Juno. You can also see the Little Red Spot (second and third images) and the North North Temperate Belt (fourth and fifth images.)
This sequence was taken on the night of July 15, 2018 and the very early morning hours of July 16, as Juno did its 14th close flyby of Jupiter.
This view of Jupiter’s stormy atmosphere is like something out of a Vincent van Gogh painting.
The image was captured in October 2017 by Juno at a distance of less than 12,000 miles above the Jovian cloud tops.
According to NASA scientist Jack Connerney, deputy principal investigator of the Juno mission, previous images of Jupiter have been taken at the equator where orange, red, and white hues dominate.
But that’s not what Jupiter looks like from all angles.
“And when you look down from the poles … it’s an entirely different image. It’s almost — well, I wouldn’t say almost — it is unrecognizable as Jupiter. And what you see are these cyclones, groups of cyclones, dancing around the poles, intricate storms,” Connerney told NPR.
This time-lapse video from NASA shows how the cyclones dance around the poles. The video was created by digitally extrapolating two images that were taken nine minutes apart and attempts to show how the clouds move in 29 hours. “The computer animation shows that circular storms tend to swirl, while bands and zones appear to flow,” said NASA.
According to Juno principal investigator Scott Bolton, the white clouds shown in the image above are so high and so cool that they’re likely snow clouds. As you might expect, they’re a bit different from the icy storms we experience here on Earth.
“It’s probably mostly ammonia ice, but there may be water ice mixed into it, so it’s not exactly like the snow that we have [on Earth],” Bolton told Space.com. “And I was using my imagination when I said it was snowing there — it could be hail.”
A view of Jupiter’s south pole as captured by the Juno spacecraft. (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstädt /Seán Doran)
NASA was surprised to discover that the poles of Jupiter are dominated by violent cyclones measuring hundreds of miles across. The massive tempests are densely grouped and seemingly rub together across the entire polar region.
“What you see is incredibly complex features, the cyclones and anticyclones all over the poles,” Bolton told The New York Times.
The familiar orange, yellow, and brown swirls of cloud systems near Jupiter’s equator. (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstädt /Seán Doran)
Some of the massive storms churning away near Jupiter’s equator, like the pearl-colored cyclone above, are roughly the same diameter as Earth.
A detail of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, as seen by the Juno spacecraft in 2017. (Photo: NASA/JPL/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstädt/Seán Doran)
Jupiter’s famous Great Red Spot is a storm measuring nearly 10,000 miles across, and one of the most recognizable features in the solar system.
NASA’s Juno spacecraft took this image of Jupiter’s northern hemisphere from 8,292 miles above the cloud tops in late 2017. (Photo: NASA/JPL/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstädt/Seán Doran)
Juno has been able to get some remarkably close-up views of Jupiter’s clouds. For example, the probe was a little more than one Earth diameter away when it took the image above showing cloud tops in the gas giant’s northern hemisphere.
“Jupiter completely fills the image,” NASA explains, “with only a hint of the terminator (where daylight fades to night) in the upper right corner, and no visible limb (the curved edge of the planet).” For a sense of scale, one pixel in this image is roughly equivalent to 5.8 miles (9.3 kilometers).
NASA’s Juno spacecraft captured what appeared to be a dolphin swimming through the tumult of Jupiter’s atmosphere. (Photo: NASA / Brian Swift / Seán Doran)
Sometimes, the massive swirls of clouds and storms dancing across Jupiter’s surface can even take on some familiar shapes. Visual artist Seán Doran spotted what appeared to look like a dolphin swimming through a series of images captured by Juno in October 2018.
Unlike the animal-shaped clouds we see when looking up at the sky, Doran estimates this playful one was huge — at least the size of Earth.
Dubbed the ‘Dragon’s Eye’ by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the white oval in this photo is known as an anticyclonic storm. (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstädt/Seán Doran)
This beautiful shot of Jupiter’s tumultuous North Temperate Belt was captured by Juno about 4,400 miles from the planet’s cloud tops. The white oval, dubbed the “Dragon’s Eye” by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is an anticyclonic storm. This phenomenon, which also occurs on Earth, is so-named due to winds around a storm flowing in a direction opposite to that of the flow about a region of low pressure.
Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is also an example of an anticyclonic storm.
A view of a massive storm on Jupiter as captured by the Juno spacecraft in October 2017 from a distance of only 6,281 miles. (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstädt /Seán Doran)
Juno, which has been in orbit around Jupiter since July 2016, is scheduled to continue gathering data on the planet until at least July 2021. NASA will then make a decision to either extend the spacecraft’s mission or, like Cassini’s tour of Saturn, send it into a death plunge toward the gas giant to avoid contaminating nearby worlds.
“We’re very excited about what we’ve seen so far, and every time we fly by the planet it’s like Christmas time,” Juno project manager Rick Nybakken told SpaceFlight Now. “The data is stunning.”
Editor’s note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in November 2018.