NASA's $1 billion Jupiter probe just sent back breathtaking new images of the gas giant

Juno jupiter probe nasa jpl caltechNASA/JPL-CaltechAn illustration of NASA’s Juno probe at Jupiter.

A probe the size of a basketball court has taken unprecedented new images of Jupiter.

NASA’s $US1 billion Juno spacecraft, launched in August 2011, took five years to reach and settle into orbit around the gas giant, which is located more than 415 million miles from Earth.

The probe has so far photographed Jupiter’s poles for the first time, detected bizarre cloud formations, recorded mysterious auroras, and scanned deep into the planet’s thick cloud tops.

Juno repeatedly swings by Jupiter in a wide arc to minimise time inside the planet’s intense radiation belts, which can damage sensitive electronics.

NASA planned to fire Juno’s thrusters in October 2016 to increase the frequency of these flybys (from once every 53.5 days to every two weeks), but sticky engine valves botched that operation.

Now flybys happen about once every 2 months.

Juno completed the fifth such manoeuvre on March 27, recording a fresh batch of images and streaming that raw data back to Earth. Amateur astronomers are beginning to turn the grey, unprocessed photos into brilliant full-colour images.

Here are a handful of our favourite shots from the fifth orbit, plus a few other images that space fans have recently uploaded to Juno’s website from previous flybys.

This new image, processed by amateur astronomer Roman Tkachenko, shows Jupiter's north pole in all its stormy glory.

Another person processed the same raw image to show more green-coloured details.

And here's a close-up of Jupiter's swirling cloud tops.

This shot, put together by Gervasio Robles, merges three Juno flyby images to show Jupiter's elusive south pole in full view.

Someone even merged all the images from the fifth flyby into a 3D animation, which shows the trip from Juno's viewpoint.

Amateur astronomers have also been re-developing older Juno images. The following Jovian cloud top images all came from the probe's fourth flyby on February 2, 2017.

Juno's next flyby of Jupiter should happen around May 19, 2017.

NASA will plunge the spacecraft into Jupiter's clouds sometime in 2018 or 2019. This will prevent it from spreading any bacteria from Earth onto the gas giant's icy, ocean-filled moons.

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