This is Jupiter, the big boy of the Solar System, and its iconic Great Red Spot like you’ve never seen it before.
NASA’s Juno space probe has been completing orbits around Jupiter since July 2016 on a mission to investigate the colossal gas giant’s composition, gravity field, magnetic field, and polar magnetosphere. Its chief objective is to provide scientists with information that could help to shed light on the origin and evolution of the Solar System’s biggest planet.
On board the probe is a visible-light camera and telescope, called JunoCam, that’s been capturing stunning images of the planet from different angles and beaming them back home to Earth. In a particularly cool citizen project promoted by NASA, amateur astronomers are warmly invited to get involved in the image processing. Anyone can download raw JunoCam images on their website, tweak and process the images, and then upload them for all to enjoy.
Kevin M Gill, software engineer and data wrangler at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), has recently published a bunch of new images showcasing Jupiter’s most intriguing and distinctive feature, its Great Red Spot.
This a patch of intensely stormy high pressure in the atmosphere of Jupiter, considerably wider than Earth. It’s estimated that winds in this spot could reach up to 680 kilometers (425 miles) per hour at some points of the storm’s outer edges. It’s created between two jet streams that are moving in opposite directions. No one is quite sure why the storm is such a vibrant red color, namely because most of the action is cloaked by the gas of the planet's thick atmosphere and chemical cocktail of clouds.
The Great Red Spot has been observed since at least 1830, although many argue it was the same storm described by Giovanni Cassini in 1665. If that’s the case, then the storm has been raging for over 350 years. However, researchers at NASA-JPL have documented that the spot appears to be shrinking and might disappear over the coming decades.
As for Juno, the beloved space probe will continue its work until July 2021, after which it will plunge into Jupiter and disintegrate. This will be a similar fate to Cassini, which “crashed” into Saturn in 2017. While this process might seem destructive, it’s actually a great way for researchers to grab insights into the inner depths of the planet. During its terminal dive into Saturn, Cassini sent back a huge amount of images and data that would not have otherwise been acquired.
So, think of it as a fitting ending to an epic voyage, not a violent act of self-destruction.