We’re About to Get Our Closest Look at Jupiter’s Great Red Spot

When the Juno mission reached Jupiter on July 5th, 2016, it became the second mission in history to establish orbit around the Solar System’s largest planet. And in the course of it conducting its many orbits, it has revealed some interesting things about Jupiter. This has included information about its atmosphere, meteorological phenomena, gravity, and its powerful magnetic fields.

And just yesterday – on Monday, July 10th at 7:06 p.m. PDT (11:06 p.m. EDT) – just days after the probe celebrated its first year of orbiting the planet, the Juno mission passed directly over Jupiter’s most famous feature – the Great Red Spot. This massive anticyclonic storm has been a focal point for centuries, and Juno’s scheduled flyby was the closest any mission has ever come to it.

Jupiter’s Great Red Spot was first observed during the late 17th century, either by Robert Hooke or Giovanni Cassini. By 1830, astronomers began monitoring this anticyclonic storm, and have noted periodic expansions and regressions in its size ever since. Today, it is 16,000 kilometers (10,000 miles) in diameter and reaches wind speeds of 120 meters per second (432 km/h; 286 mph) at the edges.

The Juno spacecraft isn’t the first one to visit Jupiter. Galileo went there in the mid 90’s, and Voyager 1 snapped a nice picture of the clouds on its mission. Credit: NASA

As part of its sixth orbit of Jupiter’s turbulent cloud tops,  Juno passed close to Jupiter’s center (aka. perijove), which took place at 6:55 p.m. PDT (9:55 p.m. EDT). Eleven minutes later – at 7:06 p.m. PDT (10:06 p.m. EDT) – the probe flew over the Great Red Spot. In the process, Juno was at a distance of just 9,000 km (5,600 miles) from the anticyclonic storm, which is the closest any spacecraft has ever flown to it.

During the flyby, Juno had all eight of its scientific instruments (as well its imager, the JunoCam) trained directly on the storm. With such an array aimed at this feature, NASA expects to learn more about what has been powering this storm for at least the past three and a half centuries. As Scott Bolton, the principal investigator of Juno at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), said prior to the event in a NASA press release:

“Jupiter’s mysterious Great Red Spot is probably the best-known feature of Jupiter. This monumental storm has raged on the Solar System’s biggest planet for centuries. Now, Juno and her cloud-penetrating science instruments will dive in to see how deep the roots of this storm go, and help us understand how this giant storm works and what makes it so special.”

This perijove and flyby of the Giant Red Spot also comes just days after Juno celebrated its first anniversary around Jupiter. This took place on July 4th at 7:30 p.m. PDT (10:30 p.m. EDT), at which point, Juno had been in orbit around the Jovian planet for exactly one year. By this time, the spacecraft had covered a distance of 114.5 million km (71 million mi) while orbiting around the planet.

This artist's illustration shows Juno's Microwave Radiometer observing deep into Jupiter's atmosphere. The image shows real data from the 6 MWR channels, arranged by wavelength. Credit: NASA/SwRI/JPL
This artist’s illustration shows Juno’s Microwave Radiometer observing deep into Jupiter’s atmosphere. The image shows real data from the 6 MWR channels, arranged by wavelength. Credit: NASA/SwRI/JPL

The information that Juno has collected in that time with its advanced suite of instruments has already provided fresh insights into Jupiter’s interior and the history of its formation. And this information, it is hoped, will help astronomers to learn more about the Solar System’s own history of formation. And in the course of making its orbits, the probe has been put through its paces, absorbing radiation from Jupiter’s powerful magnetic field.

As Rick Nybakken, the project manager for Juno at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, put it:

“The success of science collection at Jupiter is a testament to the dedication, creativity and technical abilities of the NASA-Juno team. Each new orbit brings us closer to the heart of Jupiter’s radiation belt, but so far the spacecraft has weathered the storm of electrons surrounding Jupiter better than we could have ever imagined.”

The Juno mission is set to conclude this coming February, after completing 6 more orbits of Jupiter. At this point, and barring any mission extensions, the probe will be de-orbited to burn up in Jupiter’s outer atmosphere. As with the Galileo spacecraft, this is meant to avoid any possibility of impact and biological contamination with one of Jupiter’s moons.

Further Reading: NASA

What Can We Expect From Juno’s Return To Jupiter?

The Juno spacecraft made history on July 4th, 2016, when it became the second spacecraft in history to achieve orbit around Jupiter for the sake of a long-term mission. Following in the footsteps of the Galileo mission, the probe will spend the next 20 months gathering data on Jupiter’s atmosphere, clouds, interior and gravitational and magnetic fields, before purposefully crashing into the planet.

And on Saturday, August 27th, Juno will be making history once again. According to NASA, at precisely 12:51 UTC (5:51 a.m. PDT, 8:51 a.m. EDT) the spacecraft will be passing closer to the cloud tops of Jupiter than at any point in its main mission. And while the probe is expected to make 35 more close flybys of the gas giant before its mission ends in February of 2018, this particular one is expected to be especially revealing.

For one, it will be the first time that the probe has all of its scientific instruments online and surveying Jupiter’s atmosphere as it swings past. And during the flyby, the probe will be passing Jupiter’s cloud tops at a distance of 4,200 kilometers (2,500 miles) – closer than it will ever get again – while traveling at a speed of 208,000 km/hour (130,000 mph).

This annotated color view of Jupiter and its four largest moons -- Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto -- was taken by the JunoCam camera on NASA's Juno spacecraft on June 21, 2016, at a distance of 6.8 million miles (10.9 million kilometers) from Jupiter. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
This annotated color view of Jupiter and its four largest moons — Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto — was taken by the JunoCam camera on NASA’s Juno spacecraft on June 21, 2016, at a distance of 6.8 million miles (10.9 million kilometers) from Jupiter. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

This will not only be the closest approach to Jupiter made by any probe, but it will pass over Jupiter’s poles, which will give Juno the opportunity to get a look at some never-before-seen things. These will include infrared and microwave readings taken by Juno’s suite of eight instruments, but also some choice photographs.

Yes, in addition to its sensor package, Juno‘s visible light imager (aka. JunoCam) will also be active and taking some close-up pictures of the atmosphere and poles. While the scientific information is expected to keep NASA scientists occupied for some time to come, the JunoCam images are expected to be released later next week.

According to NASA, these images will be the highest resolution photos of the Jovian atmosphere ever taken, not to mention the first glimpse of Jupiter’s north and south poles ever. As Scott Bolton, principal investigator of Juno from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, said in a NASA press release:

“This is the first time we will be close to Jupiter since we entered orbit on July 4. Back then we turned all our instruments off to focus on the rocket burn to get Juno into orbit around Jupiter. Since then, we have checked Juno from stem to stern and back again. We still have more testing to do, but we are confident that everything is working great, so for this upcoming flyby Juno’s eyes and ears, our science instruments, will all be open… This is our first opportunity to really take a close-up look at the king of our Solar System and begin to figure out how he works.”

NASA's Juno spacecraft launched on August 6, 2011 and should arrive at Jupiter on July 4, 2016. Credit: NASA / JPL
NASA’s Juno spacecraft launched on August 6, 2011 and should arrive at Jupiter on July 4, 2016. Credit: NASA / JPL

Ever since the Juno spacecraft launched on Aug. 5th, 2011, from Cape Canaveral, Florida, scientists and astronomers have been waiting for the day when it would start sending back information on the Solar System’s greatest planet. By examining the atmosphere, interior, and magnetic environment of the gas giant, scientists hope to be able to answer burning questions about the history of the planet’s formation.

For example, Jupiter’s interior structure and composition, as well as what drives its magnetic field, are still the subject of debate. In addition, there are some unanswered questions about when and where the planet formed. While it may have formed in its current orbit, some evidence suggests that it could have formed farther from the sun before migrating inward. All of these questions, it is hoped, are things the Juno mission will answer.

In so doing, scientists hope to be able to shed some additional light on the history of the Solar System as well. Like the other gas giants, it was assembled during the early phases, before our Sun had the chance to absorb or blow away the light gases in the huge cloud from which both were born. As such, Jupiter’s composition could tell us much about the early Solar System.

And this Saturday, the probe will be gathering what could prove to be the most crucial information its mission will produce. And of course, if all goes well, it will be taking the most detailed pictures of the Jovian giant to date! Godspeed, little Juno. You be careful out there!

Further Reading: NASA

The Juno Mission

Ever since Galileo first observed it through a telescope in 1610, Jupiter and its system of moons have fascinated humanity. And while many spacecraft have visited the system in the past forty years, the majority of these missions were flybys. With the exception of the Galileo space probe, the visits of these spacecraft to the Jupiter system were one of several intended objectives, taking place before they made their way deeper into the Solar System.

Having launched on August 5th, 2011, NASA’s Juno spacecraft has a different purpose in mind. Using a suite of scientific instruments, Juno will study Jupiter’s atmosphere, magnetic environment, weather patterns, and shed light on the history of its formation. In essence, it will be the first probe since the Galileo mission to orbit Jupiter, where it will spend the next two years sending information about the gas giant back to Earth.

If successful, Juno will prove to be the only other long-term mission to Jupiter. However, compared to Galileo – which spent seven years in orbit around the gas giant – Juno’s mission is planned to last for just two years. However, its improved suite of instruments are expected to provide a wealth of information in that time. And barring any mission extensions, its targeted impact on the surface of Jupiter will take place in February of 2018.

Juno will repeatedly dive between the planet and its intense belts of charged particle radiation, coming only 5,000 kilometers (about 3,000 miles) from the cloud tops at closest approach. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Juno will dive between the planet and its intense belts of charged particle radiation, coming  within 5,000 kilometers (about 3,000 miles) from the cloud tops. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Background:

As part of the NASA’s New Frontiers program, the Juno mission is one of several medium-sized missions intended to explore the various bodies of the Solar System. It is currently one of three probes that NASA is operating, or in the process of building. The other two are the New Horizons probe (which flew by Pluto in 2015) and OSIRIS-REx, which is expected to fly to asteroid 101955 Bennu in 2020 and bring samples back to Earth.

During a 2003 decadal survey – titled “New Frontiers in the Solar System: An Integrated Exploration Strategy” – The National Research Council discussed destinations that would serve as the source for the first competition for the New Frontiers program. A Jupiter orbiter was identified as a scientific priority, which it was hoped would address several unanswered questions pertaining to the gas giant.

These included whether or not Jupiter had a central core (the research of which would help establish how the planet was formed), the water content of Jupiter’s atmosphere, how its weather systems can remain stable, and what the nature of the magnetic field and plasma surrounding Jupiter are. In 2005, Juno was selected for the New Frontiers program alongside New Horizons and OSIRIS-REx.

Though it was originally intended to launch in 2009, NASA budget restrictions forced a delay until August of 2011. The probe was named in honor of the Roman goddess Juno, the wife of Jupiter (the Roman equivalent of Zeus) who was able to peer through a veil of clouds that Jupiter drew around himself. The name was previously a backronym which stood for JUpiter Near-polar Orbiter as well.

Mission Profile:

The Juno mission was created for the specific purpose of studying Jupiter for the sake of learning more about the formation of the Solar System. For some time, astronomers have understood that Jupiter played an important role in the development Solar System. Like the other gas giants, it was assembled during the early stages, before our Sun had the chance to absorb or blow away the light gases in the huge cloud from which they were born.

As such, Jupiter’s composition could tell us much about the early Solar System. Similarly, the gas giants are believed to have played a major role in the process of planet formation because their huge masses allowed them to shape the orbits of other objects – planets, asteroids and comets – in their planetary systems.

However, for astronomers and planetary scientists, much still remains unknown about this massive gas giant. For instance, Jupiter’s interior structure and composition, as well as what drives its magnetic field, are still the subject of theory. Because Jupiter formed at the same time as the Sun, their chemical compositions should be similar, but research has shown that Jupiter has more heavy elements than our Sun (such as carbon and nitrogen).

In addition, there are some unanswered questions about when and where the planet formed. While it may have formed in its current orbit, some evidence suggests that it could have formed farther from the sun before migrating inward. All of these questions, it is hoped, are things the Juno mission will answer.

Technician's install Juno's titanium vault. (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LMSS)
Technician’s install Juno’s titanium vault. (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LMSS)

Having launched on August 5th, 2011, the Juno spacecraft spent the next five years in space, and will reach Jupiter on July 4th, 2018. Once in orbit, it will spend the next two years orbiting the planet a total of 37 times from pole to pole, using its scientific instruments to probe beneath the gas giant’s obscuring cloud cover.

Instrumentation:

The Juno spacecraft comes equipped with a scientific suite of 8 instruments that will allow it to study Jupiter’s atmosphere, magnetic and gravitational field, weather patterns, its internal structure, and its formational history. They include:

  • Gravity Science: Using radio waves and measuring them for Doppler effect, this instrument will measure the distribution of mass inside Jupiter to create a gravity map. Small variations in gravity along the orbital path of the probe will induce small changes in velocity. The principle investigators of this instrument are John Anderson of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Luciano Iess of the Sapienza University of Rome.
  • JunoCam: This visible light/telescope is the spacecraft’s only imaging device. Intended for public outreach and education, it will provide breathtaking pictures of Jupiter and the Solar System, but will operate for only seven orbits around Jupiter (due to the effect Jupiter’s radiation and magnetic field have on instruments). The PI for this instrument is Michael C. Malin, of Malin Space Science Systems
  • Jovian Auroral Distribution Experiment (JADE): Using three energetic particle detectors, the JADE instrument will measure the angular distribution, energy, and velocity vector of low energy ions and electrons in the auroras of Jupiter. The PI is David McComas of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI).
  • Jovian Energetic Particle Detector Instrument (JEDI): Like JADE, JEDI will measure the angular distribution and the velocity vector of ions and electrons, but at high-energy and in the magnetosphere of Jupiter. The PI is Barry Mauk of NASA’s Applied Physics Laboratory.
Juno spacecraft and its science instruments. Image credit: NASA/JPL
Juno spacecraft and its science instruments. Credit: NASA/JPL
  • Jovian Infrared Aural Mapper (JIRAM): Operating in the near-infrared, this spectrometer will be responsible for mapping the upper layers of Jupiter’s atmosphere. By measuring the heat that is radiated outward, it will determine how water-rich clouds can float beneath the surface. It will also be able to assess the distribution of methane, water vapor, ammonia and phosphine in Jupiter’s atmosphere. Angioletta Coradini of the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics is the PI on this instrument.
  • Magnetometer: This instrument will be used to map Jupiter’s magnetic field, determine the dynamics of the planet’s interior and determine the three-dimensional structure of the polar magnetosphere. Jack Connemey of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center is the instrument’s PI.
  • Microwave Radiometer: The MR instrument will perform measurements of the electromagnetic waves that pass through the Jovian atmosphere, measuring the abundance of water and ammonia in its deep layers. In so doing, it will obtain a temperature profile at various levels and determine how deep the atmospheric circulation of Jupiter is. The PI for this instrument is Mike Janssen of the JPL.
  • Radio and Plasma Wave Sensor (RPWS): This RPWS will measure the radio and plasma spectra in Jupiter’s auroral region. In the process, it will identify the regions of auroral currents that define the planet’s radio emissions and accelerate its auroral particles. William Kurth of the University of Iowa is the PI.
  • Ultraviolet Imaging Spectrograph (UVS): The UVS will record the wavelength, position and arrival time of detected ultraviolet photons, providing spectral images of the UV auroral emissions in the polar magnetosphere. G. Randall Gladstone of the SwRI is the PI.

In addition to its scientific suite, the Juno spacecraft also carries a commemorative plaque dedicated to Galileo Galilei. The plaque was provided by the Italian Space Agency and depicts a portrait of Galileo, as well as script that had been composed by Galileo himself on the occasion that he observed Jupiter’s four largest moons (known today as the Galilean Moons).

The Galileo plague aboard the Juno spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/KSC
The Galileo plague aboard the Juno spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/KSC

The text, written in Italian and transcribed from Galileo’s own handwriting, translates as:

“On the 11th it was in this formation, and the star closest to Jupiter was half the size than the other and very close to the other so that during the previous nights all of the three observed stars looked of the same dimension and among them equally afar; so that it is evident that around Jupiter there are three moving stars invisible till this time to everyone.”

The spacecraft also carries three Lego figurines representing Galileo, the Roman god Jupiter and his wife Juno. The figure of Juno holds a magnifying glass as a sign of her searching for the truth, Jupiter holds a lightning bolt, and the figure of Galileo Galilei holds his famous telescope. Lego made these figurines out of aluminum (instead of the usual plastic) to ensure they would survive the extreme conditions of space flight.

Launch:

The Juno mission launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on August 5th, 2011, atop an Atlas V rocket. After approximately 1 minute and 33 seconds, the five Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) reached burnout and then fell away. After 4 minutes and 26 seconds after liftoff, the Atlas V main engine cut off, followed 16 seconds later by the separation of the Centaur upper stage rocket.

After a burn that lasted for 6 minutes, the Centaur was put into its initial parking orbit. It coasted for approximately 30 minutes before its engine conducted a second firing which lasted for 9 minutes, putting the spacecraft on an Earth escape trajectory. About 54 minutes after launch, the spacecraft separated from the Centaur and began to extend its solar panels.

A year after launch, between August and September 2012, the Juno spacecraft successfully conducted two Deep Space Maneuvers designed to correct its trajectory. The first maneuver (DSM-1) occurred on August 30th, 2012, with the main engine firing for approximately 30 minutes and altering its velocity by about 388 m/s (1396.8 km/h; 867 mph).

The second maneuver (DSM-2), which had a similar duration and resulted in a similar velocity change, took place on September 14th. The two firings occurred when the probe was about 480 million km (298 million miles) from Earth, and altered the spacecraft’s speed and its Jupiter-bound trajectory, setting the stage for a gravity assist from its flyby of Earth.

Earth Flyby:

Juno’s Earth flyby took place on October 9th, 2013, after the spacecraft completed one elliptical orbit around the Sun. During its closest approach, the probe was at an altitude of about 560 kilometers (348 miles). The Earth flyby boosted Juno’s velocity by 3,900 m/s (14162 km/h; 8,800 mph) and placed the spacecraft on its final flight path for Jupiter.

During the flyby, Juno’s Magnetic Field Investigation (MAG) instrument managed to capture some low-resolution images of the Earth and Moon. These images were taken while the Juno probe was about 966,000 km (600,000 mi) away from Earth – about three times the Earth-moon separation. They were later combined by technicians at NASA’s JPL to create the video shown above.

The Earth flyby was also used as a rehearsal by the Juno science team to test some of the spacecraft’s instruments and to practice certain procedures that will be used once the probe arrives at Jupiter.

Rendezvous With Jupiter:

The Juno spacecraft reached the Jupiter system and established polar orbit around the gas giant on July 4th, 2016. It’s orbit will be highly elliptical and will take it close to the poles – within 4,300 km (2,672 mi) – before reaching beyond the orbit of Callisto, the most distant of Jupiter’s large moons (at an average distance of 1,882,700 km or 1,169,855.5 mi).

This orbit will allow the spacecraft to avoid long-term contact with Jupiter’s radiation belts, while still allowing it to perform close-up surveys of Jupiter’s polar atmosphere, magnetosphere and gravitational field. The spacecraft will spend the next two years orbiting Jupiter a total of 37 times, with each orbit taking 14 days.

Already, the probe has performed measurements of Jupiter’s magnetic field. This began on June 24th when Juno crossed the bow shock just outside Jupiter’s magnetosphere, followed by it’s transit into the lower density of the Jovian magnetosphere on June 25. Having made the transition from an environment characterized by solar wind to one dominated by Jupiter’s magnetosphere, the ship’s instruments revealed some interesting information about the sudden change in particle density.

The probe entered its polar elliptical orbit on July 4th after completing a 35-minute-long firing of the main engine, known as Jupiter Orbital Insertion (or JOI). As the probe approached Jupiter from above its north pole, it was afforded a view of the Jovian system, which it took a final picture of before commencing JOI.

On July 10th, the Juno probe transmitted its first imagery from orbit after powering back up its suite of scientific instruments. The images were taken when the spacecraft was 4.3 million km (2.7 million mi) from Jupiter and on the outbound leg of its initial 53.5-day capture orbit. The color image shows atmospheric features on Jupiter, including the famous Great Red Spot, and three of the massive planet’s four largest moons – Io, Europa and Ganymede, from left to right in the image.

While the mission team had hoped to reduce Juno’s orbital period to 14 days, thus allowing for it to conduct a total of 37 perijoves before mission’s end. However, due to a malfunction with the probe’s helium valves, the firing was delayed. NASA has since announced that it will not conduct this engine firing, and that the probe will conduct a total perijoves in total before the end of its mission.

End of Mission:

The Juno mission is set to conclude in February of 2018, after completing 12 orbits of Jupiter. At this point, and barring any mission extensions, the probe will be de-orbited to burn up in Jupiter’s outer atmosphere. As with the Galileo spacecraft, this is meant be to avoid any possibility of impact and biological contamination with one of Jupiter’s moons.

The mission is managed by the JPL, and its principal investigator is Scott Bolton of the Southwest Research Institute. NASA’s Launch Services Program, located at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, is responsible for managing launch services for the probe. The Juno mission is part of the New Frontiers Program managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

As of the writing of this article, the Juno mission is one day, four hours and fifty-five minutes away from its historic arrival with Jupiter. Check out NASA’s Juno mission page to get up-to-date information on the mission, and stay tuned to Universe Today for updates!

We have written many interesting articles about Jupiter here at Universe today. Here’s Juno Blasts off on Science Trek to Discover Jupiter’s Genesis, Jupiter Bound Juno snaps Dazzling Gallery of Planet Earth Portraits, Understanding Juno’s Orbit: An Interview with NASA’s Scott Bolton, NASA’s Juno probe Gets Gravity Speed Boost during Earth Flyby But Enters ‘Safe Mode.

Astronomy cast also has relevant episodes on the subject. Here’s Episode 59: Jupiter, and Episode 232: Galileo Spacecraft,

For more information, check out NASA’s Juno mission page, and the Southwest Research Institute’s Juno page.

Ten Interesting Facts About Jupiter

Jupiter was appropriately named after the king of the gods. It’s massive, has a powerful magnetic field, and more moons that any planet in the Solar System. Though it has been known to astronomers since ancient times, the invention of the telescope and the advent of modern astronomy has taught us so much about this gas giant.

In short, there are countless interesting facts about this gas giant that many people just don’t know about. And we here at Universe Today have taken the liberty of compiling a list of ten particularly interesting ones that we think will fascinate and surprise you. Think you know everything about Jupiter? Think again!

Continue reading “Ten Interesting Facts About Jupiter”

Io, Jupiter’s Volcanic Moon

This global view of Jupiter's moon, Io, was obtained during the tenth orbit of Jupiter by NASA's Galileo spacecraft. Credit: NASA

Exploring the Solar System is like peeling an onion. With every layer removed, one finds fresh mysteries to ponder over, each one more confounding than the last. And this is certainly the case when it comes to Jupiter’s system of moons, particularly its four largest – Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. Known as the Galilean Moons, in honor of their founder, these moons possess enough natural wonders to keep scientists busy for centuries.

As Jupiter’s innermost moon, it is also the fourth-largest moon in the Solar System, has the highest density of any known moon, and is the driest known object in the Solar System. It is also one of only four known bodies that experiences active volcanism and – with over 400 active volcanoes – it is the most geologically active body in the Solar System.

Continue reading “Io, Jupiter’s Volcanic Moon”