The Juno spacecraft is continuing its incredible mission around Jupiter, using its suite of instruments to investigate the giant planet like never before. Its periodic close flybys thanks to its highly elliptical orbit continue to provide spine-tingling sights of Jupiter’s turbulent atmosphere.
During February’s flyby, the NASA space probe's JunoCam caught a dark circular feature surrounded by swirling messy clouds within the jet stream region known as Jet N6. The region in the photograph is found in the northern hemisphere roughly 55° from the equator. It was taken on February 12, when the spacecraft was roughly 13,000 kilometers (8,000 miles) from Jupiter’s cloud top. That's slightly more than an Earth's diameter away from the clouds.
The processing of this beautiful picture was done by citizen scientist and software engineer Kevin M. Gill. The image has been rotated by about 100° and its colors enhanced to make the contrast between the clouds appear more prominent. The raw images from JunoCam are available online and NASA encourages people to give it a go doing their own processing of the images as there is often so much data to get through.
The mission is not there to just take pretty pictures of Jupiter, though. It is studying the amount of water on the planet, a fact that might provide new insights into how the planet formed. It is also studying Jupiter's gravity and mass to work out the interior of the planet. Among the suite of instruments, there's also a magnetometer to measure the magnetic field with much higher precision to hopefully gather enough data to find out how it's produced.
February 12 marked the 18th flyby of the spacecraft around the gas giant. Juno arrived at Jupiter in 2016. It performs a close flyby every 53 days with the next one expected on April 6. The mission has demonstrated its value from the get-go, and in June 2018 it was extended for another three years. There are now 35 planned flybys, with the last one set to be on July 30, 2021, which means we are just over halfway through the spacecraft's full mission.
On completion, NASA plans to deorbit the spacecraft during its last flyby. The controlled swan dive into the planet is necessary to avoid contaminating potentially life-bearing worlds like Jupiter’s moon Europa.