A Fascinating Look at Jupiter's Clouds Where the Light Intensity is Converted Into 3D

A still image from the 3D animation that shows the elevation of Jupiter's cloud tops. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstädt

In July 2016, NASA’s Juno space probe reached Jupiter, becoming the second spacecraft in history to orbit the gas giant (the first being the Galileo probe that orbited Jupiter from 1995 to 2003). The data it has sent back has led to new revelations about the Jovian atmosphere, magnetosphere, gravitational field, structure, and composition. While its primary mission was intended to only last until 2018, a mission extension means that Juno will continue to orbit Jupiter’s poles (a perijove maneuver) and send back stunning images and data until 2025.

Recently, a team of citizen scientists led by mathematician and software developer Gerald Eichstädt used images taken by the probe’s visible-light camera/telescope (the JunoCam) to create a 3D animation of Jupiter’s upper atmosphere. Eichstädt’s animation was presented at the 2022 Europlanet Science Congress (EPSC), which took place from September 18 – 23 in Granada, and shows the relative heights of the cloud tops of Jupiter that reveal delicately textured swirls and peaks. Eichstädt’s work also showcased the potential for citizen science and public engagement with today’s missions.

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NASA’s Juno To Skim the Surface of Jupiter’s Icy Moon Europa

This next week will mark a scientifically valuable achievement for NASA’s Juno mission, as the pioneering spacecraft is slated to fly within 358 kilometers (222 miles) of Jupiter’s icy moon Europa on September 29 at 5:36 a.m. EDT (2:36 a.m. PDT) as part of its extended mission to explore the Jupiter system. A flyby this close to Europa’s surface will allow Juno to acquire some of the highest-resolution images ever taken of the icy moon. For context, the last mission to explore Europa in depth was NASA’s Galileo spacecraft, which got within 351 kilometers (218 miles) of the surface on January 3, 2000.

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Jupiter is up to 9% Rock and Metal, Which Means it Ate a lot of Planets in its Youth

This image of Jupiter's turbulent atmosphere was taken by NASA's Juno spacecraft on December 30, 2020. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS

Jupiter is composed almost entirely of hydrogen and helium. The amounts of each closely conform to the theoretical quantities in the primordial solar nebula. But it also contains other heavier elements, which astronomers call metals. Even though metals are a small component of Jupiter, their presence and distribution tell astronomers a lot.

According to a new study, Jupiter’s metal content and distribution mean that the planet ate a lot of rocky planetesimals in its youth.

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Juno’s Entire 42nd Flight Past Jupiter in One Amazing Mosaic

Jupiter - Perijove 42, with images taken by the Juno spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Kevin M. Gill

On May 23, 2022, the Juno spacecraft made another close pass of Jupiter, with its suite of scientific instruments collecting data and its JunoCam visible light camera snapping photos all the while. This close pass, called a perijove, is the 42nd time the spacecraft has swung past Jupiter since Juno’s arrival in 2016.

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Ganymede Casts a Long Shadow Across the Surface of Jupiter

NASA’s Juno spacecraft captured this view of Jupiter during the mission’s 40th close pass by the giant planet on Feb. 25, 2022. The large, dark shadow on the left side of the image was cast by Jupiter’s moon Ganymede. Image data: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS Image processing by Thomas Thomopoulos

What is that large dark smudge on Jupiter’s side? It may remind you of a certain scene from the sci-fi film “2010: The Year We Make Contact,” where a growing black spot appears in Jupiter’s atmosphere.

But this is a real photo, and the dark spot is just an elongated shadow of Ganymede, Jupiter’s largest moon. Just like when Earth’s Moon crosses between our planet and the Sun creating an eclipse for lucky Earthlings, when Jupiter’s moons cross between the gas giant and the Sun, they create shadows too.  

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Jupiter and Ganymede are Connected by Magnetic Fields

Credit: SwRI

On July 5th, 2016, NASA’s Juno spacecraft arrived at Jupiter and began its four-year mission (which has since been extended to 2025) to study the gas giant’s atmosphere, composition, magnetosphere, and gravitational environment. Juno is the first dedicated mission to study Jupiter since the Galileo probe studied the system between 1995 and 2003. The images and data it has sent back to Earth have revealed much about Jupiter’s atmosphere, aurorae, polar storms, internal structure, and moons.

In addition, the Juno mission has allowed astronomers to learn more about how magnetic interaction between some of Jupiter’s moons and its atmosphere leads the gas giant to experience aurorae around its northern and southern poles. After analyzing data from Juno’s payload, a team of researchers from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) observed how streams of electrons from Ganymede (Jupiter’s largest moon) leave an “auroral footprint” in Jupiter’s atmosphere.

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This was Juno’s View on its 37th Flight Past Jupiter

Jupiter, as seen from Juno during its 37th pass over Jupiter. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Kevin M. Gill

As originally planned, Juno’s 37th close pass by Jupiter – called Perijove 37 – would have been its last. Per the original mission outline, the Juno spacecraft would have been programed to plunge into Jupiter on Perijove 37 as a mission-ending self-sacrifice. Destroying Juno would protect the Jovian moons — especially Europa — from potential future contamination by an unpowered spacecraft wandering adrift through the Jupiter system. As careful as NASA is about taking precautions to limit the amount of Earth-sourced biological material carried by robotic spacecraft, it’s incredibly difficult to ensure that no microbes might have tagged along.

But, back to Juno: as it stands now, the Juno mission is just getting started. With a mission extension granted earlier this year, Juno will continue to operate until at least 2025, with 42 extra orbits added to the mission.

And thank goodness, because the images from Perijove 37 are pretty stunning. The new mission plan put Juno on a relatively close pass to image Jupiter itself, as well as a great view of Jupiter’s moon Europa, see below.

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Here’s What it Would Be Like to Fly Low Over Jupiter’s Cloudtops

Jupiter, via Juno. Picture shows lower elevation and uses standard perspective projection. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Kevin M. Gill

During Juno’s extended mission, every orbit is like a new adventure. Each orbit is a little different, and NASA says the natural evolution of Juno’s orbit around Jupiter provides a wealth of new science opportunities.

But for most of us, what we look forward to on every perijove – the point in each orbit where the Juno spacecraft comes closest to the gas giant – are the incredible images taken by the camera on board, JunoCam. As Juno’s “eyes,” the camera provides a unique vantage point no other spacecraft has been able to give us.

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Ganymede in Infrared Taken During Juno’s Most Recent Flyby

Infrared view of Jupiter’s icy moon Ganymede was obtained by the Jovian Infrared Auroral Mapper (JIRAM) instrument aboard NASA’s Juno spacecraft Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/ASI/INAF/JIRAM

On July 20th, 2021, NASA’s Juno spacecraft conducted a flyby of Jupiter’s (and the Solar System’s) largest moon, Ganymede. This close pass was performed as part of the orbiter’s thirty-fourth orbit of the gas giant (Perijove 34), which saw the probe come within 50,109 km (31,136 mi) of the moon’s surface. The mission team took this opportunity to capture images of Ganymede’s using Juno’s Jovian Infrared Auroral Mapper (JIRAM).

These were combined with images acquired during two previous flybys to create a new infrared map of Ganymede’s surface, which was released in honor of the mission’s tenth anniversary (which launched from Earth on Aug. 5th, 2011). This map and the JIRAM instrument could provide new information on Ganymede’s icy shell and the composition of its interior ocean, which could shed led on whether or not it could support life.

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