Planets

Stunning Close-Ups of Jupiter's Great Red Spot From Juno Probe Flyby Are Here

NASA has released the first images taken by the exploratory spacecraft in low orbit as it passed directly above the Great Red Spot at an altitude of roughly 5,600 miles.

The giant storm on Jupiter known as the Great Red Spot has been raging for centuries. Now scientists may finally be on the verge of attaining greater insight into this tempest.

Images and data are being returned to Earth from the Juno spacecraft’s recent close pass over the GRS on Monday, July 10, when it passed directly above the coiling crimson cloud tops at a height of just 5,600 miles (9,000 kilometers). The spacecraft's eight instruments gathered data, including its citizen science-based imager, JunoCam. As soon as the raw images hit the JunoCam website, amateur image processing gurus pounced into action.

The images — the closest ever taken of the GRS — weren’t expected to be available until July 14 because the spacecraft’s main antenna was pointed away from Earth during the closest approach. But they arrived earlier that expected on Wednesday.

“The Juno team must have fast-tracked them!” enthused amateur image processor Kevin Gill, who works as a science data software engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The science team knows there has been avid public interest in Juno’s seventh science flyby over Jupiter’s cloud tops that focused on the GRS.

"This monumental storm has raged on the solar system's biggest planet for centuries,” said Scott Bolton, principal investigator of Juno from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “Now, Juno and her cloud-penetrating science instruments will dive in to see how deep the roots of this storm go, and help us understand how this giant storm works and what makes it so special."

It will likely take weeks or perhaps months for the science team to analyze the data gathered by Juno’s instruments in order to reveal some of the enduring storm’s secrets. But JunoCam images processed by amateurs can be seen here.

“We made JunoCam an instrument that belongs to the public,” Juno’s Project Scientist Steve Levin told me last year. “We solicit the aid of the public in picking which areas to look at and making the maps that go in to the images and processing the data, and releasing the data to the world. We release it in the rawest form we can, and allow the public to make the images.”

The JunoCam images captured three different views of the GRS. One that looks at the northern edge, one centered as Juno fly right over the GRS, and one looking from the south. The third one also included data with a methane filter.

While the images are stunning, it will be the other instruments that will reveal the most insights into the GRS, the storm that is twice as big as Earth.

While astronomers have actively monitored the GRS since the early 1800s, and other spacecraft such as Voyager in the late 1970s and Galileo in the 1990s, "there’s still a lot of mystery surrounding this massive storm," said Bolton.

Questions abound, such as why is the storm red? Why has it​ endured for so long, and why has​ it been shrinking over the past several years?

Because of the swirling cloud tops on Jupiter, it is impossible to peer below to see what is happening beneath the surface. But Juno’s cloud-penetrating radar should provide insight into Jupiter’s turbulent atmosphere and what the GRS’s structure is like deep inside the storm, while other instruments study the planet’s interior structure and magnetosphere.

Juno has been orbiting Jupiter just over a year, arriving on July 4, 2016.

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