For almost three years, NASA’s Juno mission has been delivering fantastic science and stunning pictures of Jupiter, the largest planet in the Solar System. We have come to expect new and intricate panoramas regularly, and yet it still has the ability to surprise us.
A photo taken during Juno's latest flyby has brought to the attention of astronomers a peculiarly dark vortex. It has been dubbed the "Jupiter Abyss" and it sits within a jet stream. The image was processed and enhanced by citizen scientists Gerald Eichstädt and Seán Doran, whose tireless work has produced some incredible panoramas of the gas giant.
The snap was taken by the JunoCam imager on May 29, as Juno performed the 20th flyby of its mission, when the spacecraft was roughly 14,800 kilometers (9,200 miles) above the top of the cloud cover. The image doesn’t just show the dark vortex, it also shows the complex turbulent patterns of Jupiter’s higher atmosphere. We are also treated to the white wisps of high-altitude clouds visible against the darker background underneath.
Juno orbits Jupiter in a highly elliptical orbit every 52 days. This takes the craft very close to the cloud cover, where it is using its suite of instruments to fulfill its mission: learn as much as possible about what goes on inside Jupiter, from its clouds to its magnetic fields via its gravity.
Thanks to the mission we are already understanding better the complexity of its atmosphere and how it evolves. It is an extremely dynamic system. Even features such as the Great Red Spot (GRS), an Earth-sized cyclone, are changing. The GRS is shrinking, literally in front of our eyes. Recent observations from amateur astronomers show material stretching out from the gigantic storm.
Juno's primary mission actually ended in July 2018, but it has been extended until 2021. There are 15 more flybys planned that will collect more data about the gas giant. The mission will end on July 30, 2021, when the craft will be de-orbited right into the atmosphere. This is necessary to make sure that the spacecraft doesn’t end up contaminating the moons of Jupiter, in particular, Europa, which has a liquid ocean and might even host life.