On Saturday, Aug. 27, NASA’s Juno spacecraft pulled off the first of 36 high-speed flybys of Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system.
Juno strafed the gas giant at a speed of roughly 130,000 mph — briefly making it the fastest human-made object ever launched — and recorded crucial data that it will beam back in the coming days and researchers will pore over for years.
But during its trip, the pinwheel-shaped spacecraft took a moment to photograph Jupiter in all its swirling, gassy splendor and beam this image back to Earth:
It may not look like much, but it’s the closest view of the so-called “King of the Solar System” we’ve seen since 2007. That’s when NASA’s New Horizons probe paid a visit while stealing some gravitational energy to make it to Pluto.
“We are in an orbit nobody has ever been in before, and these images give us a whole new perspective on this gas-giant world,” Scott Bolton, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio and the Juno mission’s leader, said in a NASA statement.
Prior to New Horizons, the Cassini mission took some gorgeous photos of the 89,000-mile-wide planet before continuing on to Saturn.
Here’s one of the most impressive Cassini photos of Jupiter we’ve seen, taken in 2001:
As researchers on Earth download and process more data from Juno, we’re bound to see clearer and more vivid photos from NASA.
Writing in a blog post for the Planetary Society (which obsesses over the details of planetary missions), Emily Lakdawalla remarked on the “unusual view” provided by the image, which is top-down and almost reveals Jupiter’s pimply looking northern pole.
“[T]he photo was captured two hours before closest approach, roughly an hour before the spacecraft would have passed over the north pole,” Lakdawalla wrote. “So it’s just a taste of the awesome imaging to come — there should be much better stuff in the future.”
Sometime before the end of 2016, NASA will tighten Juno’s orbits around Jupiter, causing it to swing around the planet once every 14 days for the next 16 months:
Once the mission ends, however, Juno won’t live on as a relic of humanity’s exploration.
To protect any aliens that might be living on icy moons such as Europa and Ganymede, NASA intends to fly the $1 billion probe to its doom — right into the seemingly bottomless, noxious clouds of Jupiter.
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