It’s been a busy and exhilarating couple of months for scientists who study Jupiter – and space nerds fascinated by the gas giant.
Yesterday, a team of researchers announced the discovery of 12 new Jovian moons, bringing Jupiter’s total up to 79. Last week, scientists revealed that data from NASA’s $US1 billion Juno mission suggested there may be a previously undiscovered volcano on Jupiter’s moon Io. And last month, the team behind Juno figured out that Jupiter’s lighting is more similar to Earth’s than previously thought – which solved a 39-year-old mystery.
But most excitingly, NASA confirmed in June that Juno, which has orbited Jupiter since July 2015, will cheat death for at least three more years. The probe was scheduled to crash into Jupiter’s clouds this month, but instead the mission has been extended until at least July 2021.
That gives scientists a chance to complete the mission’s main goal: to map Jupiter’s magnetic and gravitational fields.
This work is done by flying Juno over Jupiter’s cloud tops at speeds roughly 75 times as fast as a bullet. These flybys, called perijoves, happen once every 53.5 days. The most recent one (Juno’s 14th perijove) occurred on July 16, and the prior flyby was on May 24.
The high-speed trips have allowed NASA to document the gas giant like never before. An optical camera called JunoCam captures beautiful images of Jupiter each time, and the space agency uploads the raw photo data to its websites. Then people around the world can download that data and process it into stunning colour pictures.
Here are 13 mesmerising images from the latest perijove, along with a few highlights from past flybys.
Juno makes an elliptical orbit around Jupiter. It’s a compromise between getting unprecedented new data and staying out of the planet’s intense radiation field, which can damage sensitive electronics.
During a perijove, the Juno probe dives over Jupiter’s north pole, screams past the Jovian cloud tops at 130,000 mph, and exits at the south pole.
While the probe is close to Jupiter, Juno records the planet with radar systems, radiation detectors, magnetic and gravitational field recorders, and more.
This high-contrast photo was processed by NASA software engineer Kevin M. Gill, who processes raw data from each perijove soon after it becomes available. You can find more of his work on Twitter or Flickr.
Juno was the first spacecraft to fly above and below Jupiter, photograph the planet’s poles, and begin to unravel their mysteries. Colour processing often gives the storms near the poles a blue hue.
Researchers have used data collected by Juno to model Jupiter’s storm-choked north pole in 3D.
Juno can’t get a picture of the entire planet at once. The spacecraft is roughly 66 feet long, while Jupiter is more than 88,840 miles wide at its middle. Jupiter is about 1,321 times as voluminous as Earth.
Björn Jónsson, an Icelandic computer scientist, recently stitched together over 100 images from the Juno mission and the Cassini mission to Saturn to create this full photographic map of Jupiter.
Among Juno fans, photos of the Great Red Spot have been a favourite, since the storm could easily swallow Earth. The probe didn’t photograph that area during the most recent flyby, though — the last new images of the spot were captured in April 2018.
But Jupiter has plenty of other remarkable cloudscapes and storms swirling. This swath of high-altitude clouds is located in the planet’s northern hemisphere.
Jupiter’s storms and clouds form patterns that can look as trippy as they are beautiful. Seán Doran, a graphic artist who is one of the most prolific processors of JunoCam data, created this image. “Planet of Screaming Skulls,” he called it on Twitter.
Doran also made this mysterious portrait of the planet, in which you can see the twinkle of myriad stars in the background.
Although Juno will continue to orbit Jupiter through at least July 2021, NASA ultimately plans to destroy the robot by plunging it into Jupiter’s clouds.
The rationale for that dramatic ending is similar to the one behind the Cassini probe’s demise at Saturn: Jupiter’s icy moon Europa may be habitable to alien life, so deliberately destroying Juno will prevent it from crashing into that moon and contaminating whatever’s there.
For the next three years, though, we’ll continue to get new batches of incredible images from the farthest solar-powered spacecraft ever launched from Earth.
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