Weekly Space Hangout: April 18, 2018: Kevin Gill: Art and Science from Juno and MRO

Hosts:
Fraser Cain (universetoday.com / @fcain)
Dr. Paul M. Sutter (pmsutter.com / @PaulMattSutter)
Dr. Kimberly Cartier (KimberlyCartier.org / @AstroKimCartier )
Dr. Morgan Rehnberg (MorganRehnberg.com / @MorganRehnberg & ChartYourWorld.org)

Special Guests:
Kevin Gill is a software engineer, planetary and climate data wrangler, and a science data visualization artist. Kevin will be discussing his work with Juno and MRO images. Check out his work at his Flickr page: https://www.flickr.com/photos/kevinmgill/ and his tech blog Apoapsys: http://www.wthr.us/ Follow Kevin on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/kevinmgill and Instagram here: https://www.instagram.com/apoapsys/

Announcements:
If you would like to join the Weekly Space Hangout Crew, visit their site here and sign up. They’re a great team who can help you join our online discussions!

We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Wednesday at 5:00 pm Pacific / 8:00 pm Eastern. You can watch us live on Universe Today, or the Weekly Space Hangout YouTube page – Please subscribe!

Io Afire With Volcanoes Under Juno’s Gaze

An amazingly active Io, Jupiter’s “pizza moon” shows multiple volcanoes and hot spots in this photo taken with Juno’s infrared camera. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / SwRI / ASI / INAF /JIRAM / Roman Tkachenko

Volcanic activity on Io was discovered by Voyager 1 imaging scientist Linda Morabito. She spotted a little bump on Io’s limb while analyzing a Voyager image and thought at first it was an undiscovered moon. Moments later she realized that wasn’t possible — it would have been seen by earthbound telescopes long ago. Morabito and the Voyager team soon came to realize they were seeing a volcanic plume rising 190 miles (300 km) off the surface of Io. It was the first time in history that an active volcano had been detected beyond the Earth. For a wonderful account of the discovery, click here.

Linda Morabito spotted the puzzling plume off Io’s limb in this photo, taken on March 8, 1979, three days after Voyager 1’s encounter with Jupiter. It really does look like another moon poking out from behind Io. A second plume over the terminator (border between day and night) catches the rays of the rising Sun. Credit: NASA / JPL

Today, we know that Io boasts more than 130 active volcanoes with an estimated 400 total, making it the most volcanically active place in the Solar System. Juno used its Jovian Infrared Aurora Mapper (JIRAM) to take spectacular photographs of Io during Perijove 7 last July, when we were all totally absorbed by close up images of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot.

Io is captured here by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft. Deposits of sulfur dioxide frost appear in white and grey hues while yellowish and brownish hues are probably due to other sulfurous materials. Bright red materials, such as the prominent ring surrounding Pele (lower left), and “black” spots mark areas of recent volcanic activity. Credit: NASA / JPL / University of Arizona

Juno’s Io looks like it’s on fire. Because JIRAM sees in infrared, a form of light we sense as heat, it picked up the signatures of at least 60 hot spots on the little moon on both the sunlight side (right) and the shadowed half. Like all missions to the planets, Juno’s cameras take pictures in black and white through a variety of color filters. The filtered views are later combined later by computers on the ground to create color pictures. Our featured image of Io was created by amateur astronomer and image processor Roman Tkachenko, who stacked raw images from this data set to create the vibrant view.

This map shows thermal emission from erupting volcanoes on Io. The larger the spot, the larger the thermal emission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Bear Fight Institute

Io’s hotter than heck with erupting volcano temperatures as high as 2,400° F (1,300° C). Most of its lavas are made of basalt, a common type of volcanic rock found on Earth, but some flows consist of sulfur and sulfur dioxide, which paints the scabby landscape in unique colors.


This five-frame sequence taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft on March 1, 2007 captures the giant plume from Io’s Tvashtar volcano.

Located more than 400 million miles from the Sun, how does a little orb only a hundred miles larger than our Moon get so hot? Europa and Ganymede are partly to blame. They tug on Io, causing it to revolve around Jupiter in an eccentric orbit that alternates between close and far. Jupiter’s powerful gravity tugs harder on the moon when its closest and less so when it’s farther away. The “tug and release”creates friction inside the satellite, heating and melting its interior. Io releases the pent up heat in the form of volcanoes, hot spots and massive lava flows.

Always expect big surprises from small things.

Gaze in Wonder at Jupiter’s Mysterious Geometric Polar Storms

When the Juno spacecraft arrived at Jupiter in July 2016, it quickly got to work. Among the multitude of stunning images of the planet were our first ever images of Jupiter’s poles. And what we saw there was a huge surprise: geometric arrangements of cyclones in persistent patterns.

Jupiter’s polar regions have always been a mystery to Earth-bound observers. The planet isn’t tilted much, which means the poles are always tantalizingly out of view. Other spacecraft visiting Jupiter have focused on the equatorial regions, but Juno’s circumpolar orbit is giving us good, close-up views of Jupiter’s poles.

“They are extraordinarily stable arrangements of such chaotic elements. We’d never seen anything like it.” – Morgan O’Neill, University of Chicago

Juno has a whole suite of instruments designed to unlock some of the mysteries surrounding Jupiter, including an infrared imager and a visible light camera. The polar regions are a particular focus for the mission, and astronomers were looking forward to their first views of Jupiter’s hidden poles. They were not disappointed when they got them.

Each of Jupiter’s poles is a geometric array of large cyclones arranged in persistent, polygonal patterns. At the north pole, eight storms are arranged around a single polar cyclone. In the south, one storm is encircled by five others.

Jupiter’s north pole is an arrangement of 8 cyclones around one central cyclone. Image: NASA/SWRI/JPL/ASI/INAF/IAPS

This was a stunning discovery, and quickly led to questions around the why and the how of these storm arrangements. Jupiter’s atmosphere is dominated by storm activity, including the well-known horizontal storm bands in the equatorial regions, and the famous Great Red Spot. But these almost artful arrangements of polar storms were something else.

The persistent arrangement of the storms is a puzzle. Our current understanding tells us that the storms should drift around and merge, but these storms do neither. They just turn in place.

A new paper published in Nature is looking deeper into these peculiar arrangements of storms. The paper is by scientists from an international group of institutions including the University of Chicago. It’s one of four papers dedicated to new observations from the Juno spacecraft.

One of the paper’s co-authors is Morgan O’Neill, a University of Chicago postdoctoral scholar. Remarking on the storms, she had this to say: “They are extraordinarily stable arrangements of such chaotic elements. We’d never seen anything like it.”

This image from Juno’s JunoCam captured the south pole in visible light only. It’s a puzzle why the north and south poles are so similar, yet have a different number of cyclones. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Betsy Asher Hall/Gervasio Robles

The strange geometrical arrangement of Jupiter’s polar storms reminded O’Neill of something from the library of strange physical phenomena only observed under laboratory conditions. Back in the ’90s, scientists had used electrons to simulate a frictionless, turbulent 2-D fluid as it cools. In those conditions, they observed similar behaviour. Rather than merging like expected, small vortices clumped together and formed equally spaced arrays around a center. They called these arrays “vortex crystals.”

This could help explain what’s happening at Jupiter’s poles, but it’s too soon to be certain. “The next step is: Can you create a model that builds a virtual planet and predicts these flows?” O’Neill said. That’ll be the next step in understanding the phenomenon.

Maybe it’s not surprising that these delicate-looking storms at the poles are so persistent. After all, the Great Red Spot on Jupiter has been visible for over 200 years. Maybe Jupiter is just huge and stable.

But the polar cyclones still require an explanation. And whatever that explanation is, understanding what’s happening on Jupiter will help us understand other planets better.

Here They are! New Juno Pictures of the Great Red Spot

Earlier this week, on Monday, July 10th, the Juno mission accomplished an historic feet as it passed directly over Jupiter’s most famous feature – the Great Red Spot. This massive anticyclonic storm has been raging for centuries, and Juno’s scheduled flyby was the closest any mission has ever come to it. It all took place at 7:06 p.m. PDT (11:06 p.m. EDT), just days after the probe celebrated its first year of orbiting the planet.

And today – Wednesday, July 12th, a few days ahead of schedule – NASA began releasing the pics that Juno snapped with its imager – the JunoCam – to the public. As part of the missions’ seventh orbit around the planet (perijove 7) these images are the closest and most detailed look of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot to date. And as you can clearly see by going to the JunoCam website, the pictures are a sight to behold!

And as always, citizen scientists and amateur astronomers are already busy processing the images. This level of public involvement in a NASA mission is something quite new. Prior to every perijove, NASA has asked for public input on what features they would like to see imaged. These Points of Interest (POIs), as they are called, are then photographed, and the public has had the option of helping to process them for public consumption.

“Great Red Spot from P7 Flyover”. Credit: NASA/SwRI/MSSS/Jason Major © public domain

As Scott Bolton – the associate VP at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) and the Principle Investigator (PI) of the Juno mission – said in a NASA press release, “For generations people from all over the world and all walks of life have marveled over the Great Red Spot. Now we are finally going to see what this storm looks like up close and personal.” And in just the past two days, several processed images have already come in.

Consider the images that were processed by Jason Major – an amateur astronomer and graphic designer who created the astronomy website Lights in the Dark. In the image above (his own work), we see a cropped version of the original JunoCam image in order to put Jupiter’s Great Red Spot center-frame. It was then color-adjusted and enhanced to mark the boundaries of the storm’s “eye” and the swirling clouds that surround it more clearly.

On his website, Major described the method he used to bring this image to life:

“[T]he image above is my first rendering made from a map-projected PNG file which centers and fully-frames the giant storm in contrast- and color-enhanced detail… The resolution is low but this is what my “high-speed” workflow is set up for—higher resolution images will take more time and I’m anticipating some incredible versions to be created and posted later today and certainly by tomorrow and Friday by some of the processing superstars in the imaging community (Kevin, Seán, Björn, Gerald, I’m looking at you!)”

Wide-frame shot of the Great Red Spot, processed to show contrast between the storm and Jupiter’s clouds. Credit: NASA/SwRI/MSSS/Jason Major © public domain

Above is another one of Major’s processed images, which was released shortly after the first one. This image shows the GRS in a larger context, using the full JunoCam image, and similarly processed to show contrasts. The same image was processed and submitted to the Juno website by amateur astronomers Amadeo Bellotti and Oliver Jenkins – though their submissions are admittedly less clear and colorful than Major’s work.

Other images include “Juno Eye“, a close up of Jupiter’s northern hemisphere that was processed by our good friend, Kevin M. Gill. Shown below, this image is a slight departure from the others (which focused intently on Jupiter’s Great Red Spot) to capture a close-up of the swirls in Jupiter’s northern polar atmosphere. Much like the GRS, these swirls are eddies that are created by Jupiter’s extremely high winds.

The Juno mission reached perijove – i.e. the point in its orbit where it is closest to Jupiter’s center – on July 10th at 6:55 p.m. PDT (9:55 p.m. EDT). At this time, it was about 3,500 km (2,200 mi) above Jupiter’s cloud tops. Eleven minutes and 33 seconds later, it was passing directly over the anticyclonic storm at a distance of about 9,000 km (5,600 mi); at which time, all eight of its instruments were trained on the feature.

In addition to the stunning array of images Juno has sent back, its suite of scientific instruments have gathered volumes of data on this gas giant. In fact, the early science results from the mission have shown just how turbulent and violent Jupiter’s atmosphere is, and revealed things about its complex interior structure, polar aurorae, its gravity and its magnetic field.

“Juno Eye”. Credit : NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS/SwRI/©Kevin M. Gill

The Juno mission reached Jupiter on July 5th, 2016, becoming the second probe in history to establish orbit around the planet. By the time the mission is scheduled to end in 2018 (barring any mission extensions), scientist hope to have learned a great deal about the planet’s structure and history of formation.

Given that this knowledge is likely to reveal things about the early history and formation of the Solar System, the payoffs from this mission are sure to be felt for many years to come after it is decommissioned.

In the meantime, you can check out all the processed images by going to the JunoCam sight, which is being regularly updated with new photos from Perijove 7!

Further Reading: NASA, JunoCam, Lights in the Dark

Best Jupiter Images From Juno … So Far

The original plans for the Juno mission to Jupiter didn’t include a color camera. You don’t need color images when the mission’s main goals are to map Jupiter’s magnetic and gravity fields, determine the planet’s internal composition, and explore the magnetosphere.

But a camera was added to the manifest, and the incredible images from the JunoCam have been grabbing the spotlight.

As an instrument where students and the public can choose the targets, JunoCam is a “public outreach” camera, meant to educate and captivate everyday people.

“The whole endeavor of JunoCam was to get the public to participate in a meaningful way,” said Candy Hansen, Juno co-investigator at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, speaking at a press conference last week to showcase Juno’s science and images.

And participate they have. Hundreds of ‘amateur’ image processing enthusiasts have been processing raw data from the JunoCam, turning them into stunning images, many reminiscent of a swirling Van Gogh ‘starry night’ or a cloudscape by Monet.

The swirling cloudtops of Jupiter, as seen by Juno during Perijove 5 on March 27, 2017. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Sophia Nasr.

“The contributions of the amateurs are essential,” Hansen said. “I cannot overstate how important the contributions are. We don’t have a way to plan our data without the contributions of the amateur astronomers. We don’t have a big image processing team, so we are completely relying on the help of our citizen scientists.”

Jupiter as seen by Juno during Perijove 6 in May, 2017. Credit: NASA/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstädt / Seán Doran.

Click on this image to have access to a 125 Megapixel upscaled print portrait.

Featured here are images processed by Seán Doran, Sophia Nasr, Kevin Gill and Jason Major. Like hundreds of others around the world, they anxiously await for data to arrive to Earth, where it is uploaded to the public Juno website. Then they set to work to turn the data into images.

“What I find the most phenomenal of all is that this takes real work,” Hansen said. “When you download a JunoCam image and process it, it’s not something you do in five minutes. The pictures that we get that people upload back onto our site, they’ve invested hours and hours of their own time, and then generously returned that to us.”

This video shows Juno’s trajectory from Perijove 6, and is based on work by Gerald Eichstädt, compiled and edited by Seán Doran. “This is real imagery projected along orbit trajectory,” Doran explained on Twitter.

Many of the images are shared on social media, but you can see the entire gallery of processed JunoCam images here. The Planetary Society also has a wonderful gallery of images processed by people around the world.

Intricate swirls on Jupiter Jupiter, from Juno’s Perijove 6 pass on May 19, 2017. Credit:
NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI /MSSS/Kevin M. Gill.
Details of Jupiter’s swirling gas clouds, as seen by Juno during the Perijove 6 pass in May, 2017. Credit:
NASA / SwRI / MSSS / Gerald Eichstädt / Seán Doran.

JunoCam was built by Malin Space Science Systems, which has cameras on previous missions like the Curiosity Mars Rover, the Mars Global Surveyor and the Mars Color Imager on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. To withstand the harsh radiation environment at Jupiter, the camera required special protection and a reinforced lens.

Whenever new images arrive, many of us feel exactly like editing enthusiast Björn Jónsson:

Even the science team has expressed their amazement at these images.

“Jupiter looks different than what we expected,” said Scott Bolton, Juno’s principal investigator at the Southwest Research Institute. “Jupiter from the poles doesn’t look anything like it does from the equator. And the fact the north and south pole don’t look like each other, makes us wonder if the storms are stable, if they going to stay that way for years and years like the the Great Red Spot. Only time will tell us what is true.”

Read our article about the science findings from Juno.

A sequence of images of Jupiter from Juno’s Perijove 6 pass during May, 2017. Credit:
NASA / SwRI / MSSS / Gerald Eichstädt / Seán Doran.

Part of what makes these images so stunning is that Juno is closer to Jupiter than any previous spacecraft.

“Juno has an elliptical orbit that brings it between the inner edges of Jupiter’s radiation belt and the planet, passing only 5,000 km above the cloud tops,” Juno Project Manager Rick Nybakken told me in my book ‘Incredible Stories From Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos.’ “This close proximity to Jupiter is unprecedented, as no other mission has conducted their science mission this close to the planet. We’re right on top of Jupiter, so to speak.”

Juno engineers designed the mission to enable the use of solar panels, which prior to Juno, have never been used on a spacecraft going so far from the Sun. Juno orbits Jupiter in a way that the solar panels are always pointed towards the Sun and the spacecraft never goes behind the planet. Juno’s orbital design not only enabled an historic solar-powered mission, it also established Juno’s unique science orbit.

White oval on Jupiter during Juno’s Perijove 4 pass on February 2, 2017. Processed from raw data. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Kevin M. Gill.
Uncalibrated, processed raw image from Juno’s Perijove 6 pass of Jupiter on May 19, 2017. Credit: NASA/SwRI/MSSS/Jason Major.

Juno spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral on August 5, 2011. After traveling five years and 1.7 billion miles Juno arrived in orbit at Jupiter on July 4, 2016. The mission will last until at least February 2018, making 11 science orbits around Jupiter, instead of the 32 laps originally planned. Last year, engineers detected a problem with check valves in the propulsion system, and NASA decided to forego an engine burn to move Juno into a tighter 14-day orbit around Jupiter. The current 53.4 day orbit will be maintained, but depending on how the spacecraft responds, NASA could extend the mission another three years to give Juno more flybys near Jupiter.

The next science flyby will occur on July 11, when Juno will get some close-up views of the famous Great Red Spot.

Thanks to everyone who works on these images.

Animation of six images acquired by NASA’s Juno spacecraft on March 27, 2017. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Jason Major.
This enhanced color view of Jupiter’s south pole was created by citizen scientist Gabriel Fiset using data from the JunoCam instrument on NASA’s Juno spacecraft. Oval storms dot the cloudscape. Approaching the pole, the organized turbulence of Jupiter’s belts and zones transitions into clusters of unorganized filamentary structures, streams of air that resemble giant tangled strings. The image was taken on Dec. 11, 2016 at 9:44 a.m. PST (12:44 p.m. EST), from an altitude of about 32,400 miles (52,200 kilometers) above the planet’s beautiful cloud tops. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Gabriel Fiset

Juno’s Monday Jupiter Flyby Promises New Batch of Images & Science

Juno is only part way through its mission to Jupiter, and already we’ve seen some absolutely breathtaking images of the gas giant. On Monday, the Juno spacecraft will flyby Jupiter again. This will be the craft’s 5th flyby of the gas giant, and it’ll provide us with our latest dose of Jupiter science and images. The first 4 flybys have already exceeded our expectations.

Juno will approach to within 4,400 km of Jupiter’s cloud tops, and will travel at a speed of 207,600 km/h. During this time of closest approach, called a perijove, all of Juno’s eight science instruments will be active, along with the JunoCam.

The JunoCam is not exactly part of the science payload. It was included in the missions to help engage the public with the mission, and it appears to be doing that job well. The Junocam’s targets have been partly chosen by the public, and NASA has invited anyone who cares to to download and process raw Junocam images. You can see those results throughout this article.

This image of Jupiter’s dancing cloud tops was captured during perijove 3. Image: NASA / JPL-Caltech / SwRI / MSSS / Kootenay Nature Photos © cc nc sa

This is Juno’s 5th flyby, but only its 4th science pass. During Juno’s first encounter with Jupiter, the science instruments weren’t active. Even so, after only 3 science passes, we have learned some things about Jupiter.

“We are excited to see what new discoveries Juno will reveal.” – Scott Bolton, NASA’s Principal Investigator for the Juno Mission

“This will be our fourth science pass — the fifth close flyby of Jupiter of the mission — and we are excited to see what new discoveries Juno will reveal,” said Scott Bolton, principal investigator of Juno from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “Every time we get near Jupiter’s cloud tops, we learn new insights that help us understand this amazing giant planet.”

We’ve already learned that Jupiter’s intense magnetic fields are much more complicated than we thought. We’ve learned that the belts and zones in Jupiter’s atmosphere, which are responsible for the dazzling patterns on the cloud tops, extend much deeper into the atmosphere than we thought. And we’ve discovered that charged material expelled from Io’s volcanoes helps cause Jupiter’s auroras.

The South Pole of Jupiter, taken during perijove 3. Image: NASA / JPL-Caltech / SwRI / MSSS / Luca Fornaciari © cc nc sa

Juno has the unprecedented ability to get extremely close to Jupiter. This next flyby will bring it to within 4,400 km of the cloud tops. But to do so, Juno has to pay a price. Though the sensitive equipment on the spacecraft is protected inside a titanium vault, Jupiter’s powerful radiation belts will still take a toll on the electronics. But that’s the price Juno will pay to perform its mission.

Jupiter’s dazzle as revealed by JunoCam and Shane Drever. Image: NASA / JPL-Caltech / SwRI / MSSS / Shane Drever © cc nc sa

Other missions, like Cassini, have been measured in years, while Juno’s will be measured in orbits. And once it’s completed its final orbit, it will be sent to its destruction in Jupiter’s atmosphere.

But before that happens, there’s a lot of science to be done, and a lot of stunning images to be captured.

Here’s an interview with the man leading the Juno Mission: Understanding Juno’s Orbit: An Interview with NASA’s Scott Bolton.

Here is the page for the JunoCam: https://www.missionjuno.swri.edu/junocam

A Proposal For Juno To Observe The Volcanoes Of Io

To accomplish its science objectives, NASA’s Juno spacecraft orbits over Jupiter’s poles and passes repeatedly through hazardous radiation belts. Two Boston University researchers propose using Juno to probe the ever-changing flux of volcanic gases-turned-ions spewed by Io’s volcanoes. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Jupiter may be the largest planet in the Solar System with a diameter 11 times that of Earth, but it pales in comparison to its own magnetosphere. The planet’s magnetic domain extends sunward at least 3 million miles (5 million km) and on the back side all the way to Saturn for a total of 407 million miles or more than 400 times the size of the Sun.

Jupiter’s large magnetic field interacts with the solar wind to form an invisible magnetosphere. If we were able to see it, it would span at least several degrees of sky. It would show its greatest extent when viewing Jupiter from the side at quadrature, when the planet stands due south at sunrise or sunset.In the artist’s depiction, the planet would be located between the two “purple eyes” — too small to see at this scale. Credit: NASA.

If we had eyes adapted to see the Jovian magnetosphere at night, its teardrop-like shape would easily extend across several degrees of sky! No surprise then that Jove’s magnetic aura has been called one of the largest structures in the Solar System.

A 5-frame sequence taken by the New Horizons spacecraft in May 2007 shows a cloud of volcanic debris from Io’s Tvashtar volcano. The plume extends some 200 miles (330 km) above the moon’s surface. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Io, Jupiter’s innermost of the planet’s four large moons, orbits deep within this giant bubble. Despite its small size — about 200 miles smaller than our own Moon — it doesn’t lack in superlatives. With an estimated 400 volcanoes, many of them still active, Io is the most volcanically active body in the Solar System. In the moon’s low gravity, volcanoes spew sulfur, sulfur dioxide gas and fragments of basaltic rock up to 310 miles (500 km) into space in beautiful, umbrella-shaped plumes.

This schematic of Jupiter’s magnetic environments shows the planets looping magnetic field lines (similar to those generated by a simple bar magnet), Io and its plasma torus and flux tube. Credit: John Spencer / Wikipedia CC-BY-SA3.0 with labels by the author

Once aloft, electrons whipped around by Jupiter’s powerful magnetic field strike the neutral gases and ionize them (strips off their electrons). Ionized atoms and molecules (ions) are no longer neutral but possess a positive or negative electric charge. Astronomers refer to swarms of ionized atoms as plasma.

Jupiter rotates rapidly, spinning once every 9.8 hours, dragging the whole magnetosphere with it. As it spins past Io, those volcanic ions get caught up and dragged along for the ride, rotating around the planet in a ring called the Io plasma torus. You can picture it as a giant donut with Jupiter in the “hole” and the tasty, ~8,000-mile-thick ring centered on Io’s orbit.

That’s not all. Jupiter’s magnetic field also couples Io’s atmosphere to the planet’s polar regions, pumping Ionian ions through two “pipelines” to the magnetic poles and generating a powerful electric current known as the Io flux tube. Like firefighters on fire poles, the ions follow the planet’s magnetic field lines into the upper atmosphere, where they strike and excite atoms, spawning an ultraviolet-bright patch of aurora within the planet’s overall aurora. Astronomers call it Io’s magnetic footprint. The process works in reverse, too, spawning auroras in Io’s tenuous atmosphere.

The tilt of Juno’s orbit relative to Jupiter changes over the course of the mission, sending the spacecraft increasingly deeper into the planet’s intense radiation belts. Orbits are numbered from early in the mission to late. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Io is the main supplier of particles to Jupiter’s magnetosphere. Some of the same electrons stripped from sulfur and oxygen atoms during an earlier eruption return to strike atoms shot out by later blasts. Round and round they go in a great cycle of microscopic bombardment! The constant flow of high-speed, charged particles in Io’s vicinity make the region a lethal environment not only for humans but also for spacecraft electronics, the reason NASA’s Juno probe gets the heck outta there after each perijove or closest approach to Jupiter.

Io’s flux tube directs ions down Jupiter’s magnetic field lines to create magnetic footprints of enhanced aurora in Jupiter’s polar regions. An electric current of 5 million amps flows along Io’s flux tube.Credit: NASA/J.Clarke/HST

But there’s much to glean from those plasma streams.  Astronomy PhD student Phillip Phipps and assistant professor of astronomy Paul Withers of Boston University have hatched a plan to use the Juno spacecraft to probe Io’s plasma torus to indirectly study the timing and flow of material from Io’s volcanoes into Jupiter’s magnetosphere. In a paper published on Jan. 25, they propose using changes in the radio signal sent by Juno as it passes through different regions of the torus to measure how much stuff is there and how its density changes over time.

The technique is called a radio occultation. Radio waves are a form of light just like white light. And like white light, they get bent or refracted when passing through a medium like air (or plasma in the case of Io). Blue light is slowed more and experiences the most bending; red light is slowed less and refracted least, the reason red fringes a rainbow’s outer edge and blue its inner. In radio occultations, refraction results in changes in frequency caused by variations in the density of plasma in Io’s torus.

The best spacecraft for the attempt is one with a polar orbit around Jupiter, where it cuts a clean cross-section through different parts of the torus during each orbit. Guess what? With its polar orbit, Juno’s the probe for the job! Its main mission is to map Jupiter’s gravitational and magnetic fields, so an occultation experiment jives well with mission goals. Previous missions have netted just two radio occultations of the torus, but Juno could potentially slam dunk 24.

New Horizons took this photo of Io in infrared light. The Tvastar volcano is bright spot at top. At least 10 other volcanic hot spots dot the moon’s night side. Credit: NASA/JHUPL/SRI

Because the paper was intended to show that the method is a feasible one, it remains to be seen whether NASA will consider adding a little extra credit work to Juno’s homework. It seems a worthy and practical goal, one that will further enlighten our understanding of how volcanoes create aurorae in the bizarre electric and magnetic environment of the largest planet.

Juno Just Took One Of The Best Images Of Jupiter Ever

Wow! If you’ve ever wanted to know what it would be like to hang above Jupiter’s clouds, here you go. This absolutely stunning view of Jupiter’s northern latitudes shows incredible detail of gas giant’s swirling cloudtops. And it features, in the lower left in the image below, the storm on the gas planet known as NN-LRS-1, or more colloquially, the Little Red Spot.

The JunoCam imager on NASA’s Juno spacecraft snapped this shot of Jupiter’s northern latitudes on Dec. 11, 2016. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstaedt/John Rogers.

Juno’s JunoCam, a visible light camera, is able to get never-before-seen images like this because it is doing something that no other mission to Jupiter has done.

“The spacecraft’s proximity to Jupiter is very unusual,” Rick Nybakken told me during an interview at JPL last year. Nybakken is Juno’s project manager. “Juno has an elliptical orbit that brings it just 3,107 miles (5,000 km) above the cloud tops. No other mission has been this close, and we’re right on top of Jupiter so to speak.”

Special instruments are studying Jupiter’s radiation belt and magnetosphere, its interior structure, and the turbulent atmosphere, as well as providing views of the planet with spectacular, close-up images.

And another great thing about this image is that it was processed by citizen scientists. Gerald Eichstaedt and John Rogers processed the image and drafted the caption, and this will be the norm for many of the JunoCam images, because it’s “the public’s camera.”

“I’m excited though for what we’re doing with the visible light camera,” said Juno Project Scientist Steve Levin, who I also interviewed at JPL. “We’re making JunoCam as much as much as we possibly can an instrument that belongs to the public. We’ll solicit the aid of the public in picking which images to take, and releasing the data in its rawest form, and allow people to go and make the images.”

Scientist Candy Hansen is leading this citizen science effort, and she uses the phrase, “science in a fishbowl,” meaning the JunoCam team is showing people what it is like to do science by allowing anyone to participate and see the data as it arrives from Juno.

Damian Peach reprocessed one of the latest images taken by Juno’s JunoCam during its 3rd close flyby of the planet on Dec. 11. The photo highlights two large ‘pearls’ or storms in Jupiter’s atmosphere. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS

You can find the raw images here, so go ahead and test out your image processing skills.

JunoCam is designed to capture remarkable pictures of Jupiter’s poles and cloud tops. Although its images will be helpful to the science team to help provide context for the spacecraft’s other instruments, it is not considered one of the mission’s science instruments. JunoCam was included on the spacecraft specifically for purposes of engaging and including the public.

The Little Red Spot is the third largest anticyclonic oval on the planet, which Earth-based observers have tracked for the last 23 years. An anticyclone is a weather phenomenon with large-scale circulation of winds around a central region of high atmospheric pressure. They rotate clockwise in the northern hemisphere, and counterclockwise in the southern hemisphere. The Little Red Spot shows very little color these days, just a pale brown smudge in the center. Back in 2006, the storm was stronger and the color changed darker and more red. Now, with the storm not quite as active, the color is very similar to the surroundings, making it difficult to see.

If you’d like to download a larger version of this processed image (need a new wallpaper?) you can find it on NASA’s website.

Juno Captures a Stunning Jovian ‘Pearl’

Damian Peach reprocessed one of the latest images taken by Juno's JunoCam during its 3rd close flyby of the planet on Dec. 11. The photo highlights two large 'pearls' or storms in Jupiter's atmosphere. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS
Astro-imager Damian Peach reprocessed one of the latest images taken by Juno’s JunoCam during its 3rd close flyby of the planet on Dec. 11. The photo highlights one of the large ‘pearls’ (right) that forms a string of  storms in Jupiter’s atmosphere. A smaller isolated storm is seen at left. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS

Jupiter looks beautiful in pearls! This image, taken by the JunoCam imager on NASA’s Juno spacecraft, highlights one of the eight massive storms that from a distance form a ‘string of pearls’ on Jupiter’s turbulent atmosphere. They’re counterclockwise rotating storms that appear as white ovals in the gas giant’s southern hemisphere. The larger pearl in the photo above is roughly half the size of Earth. Since 1986, these white ovals have varied in number from six to nine with eight currently visible.

Four more 'pearls' in the string of eight photographed on Dec. 10, 2016. They show up well in photos but require good seeing and at least and 8-inch telescope to see. Credit: Christopher Go
Four more ‘pearls’ photographed on Dec. 10, 2016 in the planet’s South Temperate Belt below the Great Red Spot. The moon Ganymede is at left. The show up well in photos but require good seeing and at least and 8-inch telescope to see visually. Credit: Christopher Go

The photos were taken during Sunday’s close flyby. At the time of closest approach — called perijove — Juno streaked about 2,580 miles (4,150 km) above the gas giant’s roiling, psychedelic cloud tops traveling about 129,000 mph or nearly 60 km per second relative to the planet. Seven of Juno’s eight science instruments collected data during the flyby. At the time the photos were taken, the spacecraft was about 15,300 miles (24,600 km) from the planet.

This is the original image sent by JunoCam on Dec. 11 and shows the 8th of the eight oval or 'pearls'in Jupiter's roiling atmosphere. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS
This is the original image sent by JunoCam on Dec. 11 and features the eighth in a string of large storms in the planet’s southern hemisphere. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS

JunoCam is a color, visible-light camera designed to capture remarkable pictures of Jupiter’s poles and cloud tops. As Juno’s eyes, it will provide a wide view, helping to provide context for the spacecraft’s other instruments. JunoCam was included on the spacecraft specifically for purposes of public engagement; although its images will be helpful to the science team, it is not considered one of the mission’s science instruments.

4-frame animation spans 24 Jovian days, or about 10 Earth days. The passage of time is accelerated by a factor of 600,000. Credit: NASA
4-frame animation spans 24 Jovian days, or about 10 Earth days. The passage of time is accelerated by a factor of 600,000. Some of the ovals are visible as well as a variety of jets – west to east and east to west. Credit: NASA

The crazy swirls of clouds we see in the photos are composed of ammonia ice crystals organized into a dozen or so bands parallel to the equator called belts (the darker ones) and zones. The border of each is bounded by a powerful wind flow called a jet, resembling Earth’s jet streams, which alternate direction from one band to the next.

Zones are colder and mark latitudes where material is upwelling from below. Ammonia ice is thought to give the zones their lighter color. Belts in contrast indicate sinking material; their color is a bit mysterious and may be due to the presence of hydrocarbons — molecules that are made from hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen as well as exotic sulfur and phosphorus compounds.

Use this guide to help you better understand Jupiter's arrangement of belts and zones, many of which are visible in amateur telescopes. Credit: NASA/JPL/Wikipedia
Use this guide to help you better understand Jupiter’s arrangement of belts and zones, many of which are visible in amateur telescopes. Credit: NASA/JPL/Wikipedia

The pearls or storms form in windy Jovian atmosphere and can last many decades. Some eventually dissipate while others merge to form even larger storms. Unlike hurricanes, which fall apart when they blow inland from the ocean, there’s no “land” on Jupiter, so storms that get started there just keep on going. The biggest, the Great Red Spot, has been hanging around causing trouble and delight (for telescopic observers) for at least 350 years.

Juno’s next perijove pass will happen on Feb. 2, 2017.