Astronomers just stitched together an unprecedented portrait of Jupiter in infrared — and realised its Great Red Spot is full of holes

Jupiter in infrared light, as observed by the international Gemini Observatory on May 29, 2019. International Gemini Observatory/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA M.H. Wong (UC Berkeley) and team; Acknowledgments: Mahdi Zamani

New snapshots of Jupiter reveal its turbulent weather in infrared – the spectrum of light just beyond visible wavelengths.

To get these unprecedentedly sharp images, a team of researchers from NASA and the University of California, Berkeley combined data from the Hubble Space Telescope, the Juno probe that orbits Jupiter, and the Gemini Observatory on Earth. The team released the images alongside a research paper in The Astrophysical Journal on Thursday.

Along with new mapping of Jupiter’s lightning, the images reveal that the dark patches in the planet’s Great Red Spot are holes in its cloud cover, and not different types of cloud.

Jupiter great red spot
These images of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot were made using data collected by the Hubble Space Telescope and the Gemini Observatory on April 1, 2018. NASA, ESA, and M.H. Wong (UC Berkeley) and team

“It’s kind of like a jack-o-lantern,” Michael Wong, a planetary scientist at UC Berkeley, said of the Great Red Spot in a press release. “You see bright infrared light coming from cloud-free areas, but where there are clouds, it’s really dark in the infrared.”

By studying Jupiter’s systems with multiple telescopes and spacecraft, scientists can piece together the mysteries of the planet’s atmosphere and the history of how it formed.

“Because we now routinely have these high-resolution views from a couple of different observatories and wavelengths, we are learning so much more about Jupiter’s weather,” Amy Simon, a planetary scientist for NASA, said in the release. “This is our equivalent of a weather satellite. We can finally start looking at weather cycles.”

Images from Earth ‘rival the view from space’

Jupiter infrared
This video shows one lucky-imaging set of observations on Jupiter, taken April 8, 2019. International Gemini Observatory/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA, M.H. Wong (UC Berkeley) and team; Acknowledgments: Mahdi Zamani.

To create these infrared images, the researchers used a technique called “lucky imaging.” That’s when a ground telescope takes many short-exposure images of the same spot, and researchers then select the sharpest images (generally from when Earth’s atmosphere was creating little interference).

By stitching together these select images of each region of Jupiter, the group created an unprecedented portrait of the entire planet in infrared.

“These images rival the view from space,” Wong added.

A glimpse of Jupiter’s turbulent weather

As Juno circles Jupiter, it picks up radio waves from lightning strikes deep within the planet’s atmosphere. The researchers matched the coordinates of those lightning strikes with images from the Gemini and Hubble telescopes.

They found that the lightning forms around 40-mile-high towers of clouds that swirl and exchange heat in a process called convection, rising above water clouds deep within Jupiter’s atmosphere.

Jupiter lightning convection tower
An illustration of lightning, convective towers, deep water clouds, and clearings in Jupiter’s atmosphere. NASA, ESA, M.H. Wong (UC Berkeley), and A. James and M.W. Carruthers (STScI)

“Scientists track lightning because it is a marker of convection, the turbulent mixing process that transports Jupiter’s internal heat up to the visible cloud tops,” Wong said in a release. “Ongoing studies of lightning sources will help us understand how convection on Jupiter is different from or similar to convection in the Earth’s atmosphere.”