Here’s Jupiter from Juno’s Latest Flyby


Most massive planet in the solar system – twice that of all the other planets combined. This giant world formed from the same cloud of dust and gas that became our Sun and the rest of the planets. But Jupiter was the first-born of our planetary family. As the first planet, Jupiter’s massive gravitational field likely shaped the rest of the entire solar system. Jupiter could’ve played a role in where all the planets aligned in their orbits around the Sun…or didn’t as the asteroid belt is a vast region which could’ve been occupied by another planet were it not for Jupiter’s gravity.  Gas giants like Jupiter can also hurl entire planets out of their solar systems, or themselves spiral into their stars. Saturn’s formation several million years later probably spared Jupiter this fate. Jupiter may also act as a “comet catcher.” Comets and asteroids which could otherwise fall toward the inner solar system and strike the rocky worlds like Earth are captured by Jupiter’s gravitational field instead and ultimately plunge into Jupiter’s clouds. But at other times in Earth’s history, Jupiter may have had the opposite effect, hurling asteroids in our direction – typically a bad thing but may have also resulted in water-rich rocks coming to Earth that led to the blue planet we know of today.

Early solar system and protoplanetary disk with a young Jupiter – c. NASA
Continue reading “Here’s Jupiter from Juno’s Latest Flyby”

Another Juno Flyby, Another Amazing Sequence of Images of Jupiter

In July of 2016, the Juno spacecraft established orbit around Jupiter, becoming the first spacecraft since the Galileo probe to study the planet directly. Since that time, the probe has been sending back vital information about Jupiter’s atmosphere, magnetic field and weather patterns. With every passing orbit – known as perijoves, which take place every 53 days – the probe has revealed more exciting things about this gas giant.
Continue reading “Another Juno Flyby, Another Amazing Sequence of Images of Jupiter”

NASA’s Juno Mission Spots Another Possible Volcano on Jupiter’s Moon Io

When the Juno spacecraft arrived in orbit around Jupiter in 2016, it became the second spacecraft in history to study Jupiter directly – the first being the Galileo probe, which orbited Jupiter between 1995 and 2003. With every passing orbit (known as a perijove, which take place every 53 days), the spacecraft has revealed more about Jupiter’s atmosphere, weather patterns, and magnetic environment.

In addition, Juno recently discovered something interesting about Jupiter’s closest orbiting moon Io. Based on data collected by its Jovian InfraRed Auroral Mapper (JIRAM) instrument, Juno detected a new heat source close to the south pole of Io that could indicate the presence of a previously undiscovered volcano. This is just the latest discovery made by the probe during its mission, which NASA recently extended to 2021.

Annotated image of the new heat source in the southern hemisphere of the Jupiter moon Io. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/ASI/INAF/JIRAM

The infrared data was collected on Dec. 16th, 2017, when the Juno spacecraft was about 470,000 km (290,000 mi) away from Io. As Alessandro Mura, a Juno co-investigator from the National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) in Rome, explained in a recent NASA press release:

“The new Io hotspot JIRAM picked up is about 200 miles (300 kilometers) from the nearest previously mapped hotspot. We are not ruling out movement or modification of a previously discovered hot spot, but it is difficult to imagine one could travel such a distance and still be considered the same feature.”

Aside from Juno and Galileo, many NASA missions have visited or passed through the Jovian System in the past few decades. These have including the Pioneer 10 and 11 missions in 1973/74, the Voyager 1 and 2 missions in 1979, and the Cassini and New Horizons missions in 2000 and 2007, respectively. Each of these missions managed to snap pictures of the Jovians moons on their way to the outer Solar System.

Annotated image of the new heat source close to the south pole of Io, with a scale depicting the range of temperatures displayed in the infrared image. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/ASI/INAF/JIRAM

Combined with ground-based observations, scientists have accounted for over 150 volcanoes on the surface of Io so far, with estimates claiming there could over 400 in total. Since it entered Jupiter’s orbit on July 4th, 2016, the Juno probe has traveled nearly 235 million km (146 million mi) from one pole to other. On July 16th, Juno will conduct its 13th perijove maneuver, once again passing low over Jupiter’s cloud tops at a distance of about 3,400 km (2,100 mi).

During these flybys, Juno probes beneath the upper atmosphere to study the planet’s auroras to learn more about it’s structure, atmosphere and magnetosphere. By shedding light on these characteristics, the Juno probe will also teach us more about the planet’s origins and evolution. This in turn will teach scientists a great deal more about the formation and evolution of our Solar System, and perhaps how life began here.

Further Reading: NASA

Jupiter’s Atmospheric Bands Go Surprisingly Deep

For centuries, astronomers have been observing Jupiter swirling surface and been awed and mystified by its appearance. The mystery only deepened when, in 1995, the Galileo spacecraft reached Jupiter and began studying its atmosphere in depth. Since that time, astronomers have puzzled over its colored bands and wondered if they are just surface phenomenon, or something that goes deeper.

Thanks to the Juno spacecraft, which has been orbiting Jupiter since July of 2016, scientists are now much closer to answering that question. This past week, three new studies were published based on Juno data that presented new findings on Jupiter’s magnetic field, its interior rotation, and how deep its belts extend. All of these findings are revising what scientists think of Jupiter’s atmosphere and its inner layers.

The studies were titled “Measurement of Jupiter’s asymmetric gravity field“, “Jupiter’s atmospheric jet streams extend thousands of kilometres deep” and “A suppression of differential rotation in Jupiter’s deep interior“, all of which were published in Nature on March 7th, 2018. The studies were led by Prof. Luciano Iess of Sapienza University of Rome, the second by Prof. Yohai Kaspi and Dr. Eli Galanti of the Weizmann Institute of Science, and the third by Prof. Tristan Guillot of the Observatoire de la Cote d’Azur.

Jupiter’s South Pole, taken during a Juno flyby on Dec 16th, 2017. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/David Marriott

The research effort was led by Professo Kaspi and Dr. Galanti, who in addition to being the lead authors on the second study were co-authors on the other two. The pair have been preparing for this analysis even before Juno launched in 2011, during which time they built mathematical tools to analyze the gravitational field data and get a better grasp of Jupiter’s atmosphere and its dynamics.

All three studies were based on data gathered by Juno as it passed from one of Jupiter’s pole to the other every 53-days – a maneuver known as a “perijove”. With each pass, the probe used its advanced suite of instruments to peer beneath the surface layers of the atmosphere. In addition, radio waves emitted by the probe were measured to determine how they were shifted by the planet’s gravitational field with each orbit.

As astronomers have understood for some time, Jupiter’s jets flow in bands from east to west and west to east. In the process, they disrupt the even distribution of mass on the planet. By measuring changes in the planet’s gravity field (and thus this mass imbalance), Dr. Kaspi and Dr. Galanti’s analytical tools were able to calculate how deep the storms extend beneath the surface and what it’s interior dynamics are like.

Above all, the team expected to find anomalies because of the way the planet deviates from being a perfect sphere – which is due to how its rapid rotation squishes it slightly. However, they also looked for additional anomalies that could be explained due to the presence of powerful winds in the atmosphere.

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

In the first study, Dr. Iess and his colleagues used precise Doppler tracking of the Juno spacecraft to conduct measurements of Jupiter’s gravity harmonics – both even and odd. What they determined was Jupiter’s magnetic field has a north-south asymmetry, which is indicative of interior flows in the atmosphere.

Analysis of this asymmetry was followed-up on in the second study, where Dr. Kaspi, Dr. Galanti and their colleagues used the variations in the planet’s gravity field to calculate the depth of Jupiter’s east-west jet streams. By measuring how these jets cause an imbalance in Jupiter’s gravity field, and even disrupt the mass of the planet, they concluded that they extend to a depth of 3000 km (1864 mi).

From all this, Prof. Guillot and his colleagues conducted the third study, where they used the previous findings about the planet’s gravitational field and jet streams and compared the results to predictions of interior models. From this, they determined that the interior of the planet rotates almost like a rigid body and that differential rotation decreases farther down.

In addition, they found that the zones of atmospheric flow extended to between 2,000 km (1243 mi) and 3,500 km (2175 mi) deep, which was consistent with the constraints obtained from the odd gravitational harmonics. This depth also corresponds to the point where electric conductivity would become large enough that magnetic drag would suppress differential rotation.

Based on their findings, the team also calculated that Jupiter’s atmosphere constitutes 1% of its total mass. For comparison, Earth’s atmosphere is less than a millionth of its total mass. Still, as Dr. Kaspi explained in Weizzmann Institute press release, this was rather surprising:

“That is much more than anyone thought and more than what has been known from other planets in the Solar System. That is basically a mass equal to three Earths moving at speeds of tens of meters per second.”

All told, these studies have shed new light on the Jupiter’s atmospheric dynamics and interior structure. At present, the subject of what resides at Jupiter’s core remains unresolved. But the researchers hope to analyze further measurements made by Juno to see whether Jupiter has a solid core and (if so) to determine its mass. This in turn will help astronomers learn a great deal about the Solar System’s history and formation.

In addition, Kaspi and Galanti are looking to use some of the same methods they developed to characterize Jupiter’s jet streams to tackle its most iconic feature – Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. In addition to determining how deep this storm extends, they also hope to learn why this storm has persisted for so many centuries, and why it has been noticeably shrinking in recent years.

The Juno mission is expected to wrap up in July of 2018. Barring any extensions, the probe will conduct a controlled deorbit into Jupiter’s atmosphere after conducting perijove 14. However, even after the mission is over, scientists will be analyzing the data it has collected for years to come. What this reveals about the Solar System’s largest planet will also go a long way towards informing out understanding of the Solar System.

Further Reading: Weizmann Institute of Science, Nature, Nature (2), Nature (3),

Juno Isn’t Exactly Where it’s Supposed To Be. The Flyby Anomaly is Back, But Why Does it Happen?

In the early 1960s, scientists developed the gravity-assist method, where a spacecraft would conduct a flyby of a major body in order to increase its speed. Many notable missions have used this technique, including the Pioneer, Voyager, Galileo, Cassini, and New Horizons missions. In the course of many of these flybys, scientists have noted an anomaly where the increase in the spacecraft’s speed did not accord with orbital models.

This has come to be known as the “flyby anomaly”, which has endured despite decades of study and resisted all previous attempts at explanation. To address this, a team of researchers from the University Institute of Multidisciplinary Mathematics at the Universitat Politecnica de Valencia have developed a new orbital model based on the maneuvers conducted by the Juno probe.

The study, which recently appeared online under the title “A Possible Flyby Anomaly for Juno at Jupiter“, was conducted by Luis Acedo, Pedro Piqueras and Jose A. Morano. Together, they examined the possible causes of the so-called “flyby anomaly” using the perijove orbit of the Juno probe. Based on Juno’s many pole-to-pole orbits, they not only determined that it too experienced an anomaly, but offered a possible explanation for this.

Artist’s impression of the Pioneer 10 probe, launched in 1972 and now making its way out towards the star Aldebaran. Credit: NASA

To break it down, the speed of a spacecraft is determined by measuring the Doppler shift of radio signals from the spacecraft to the antennas on the Deep Space Network (DSN). During the 1970s when the Pioneer 10 and 11 probes were launched, visiting Jupiter and Saturn before heading off towards the edge of the Solar System, these probes both experienced something strange as they passed between 20 to 70 AU (Uranus to the Kuiper Belt) from the Sun.

Basically, the probes were both 386,000 km (240,000 mi) farther from where existing models predicted they would be. This came to be known as the “Pioneer anomaly“, which became common lore within the space physics community. While the Pioneer anomaly was resolved, the same phenomena has occurred many times since then with subsequent missions. As Dr. Acebo told Universe Today via email:

“The “flyby anomaly” is a problem in astrodynamics discovered by a JPL’s team of researchers lead by John Anderson in the early 90s. When they tried to fit the whole trajectory of the Galileo spacecraft as it approached the Earth on December, 8th, 1990, they found that this only can be done by considering that the ingoing and outgoing pieces of the trajectory correspond to asymptotic velocities that differ in 3.92 mm/s from what is expected in theory.

“The effect appears both in the Doppler data and in the ranging data, so it is not a consequence of the measurement technique. Later on, it has also been found in several flybys performed by Galileo again in 1992, the NEAR [Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous mission] in 1998, Cassini in 1999 or Rosetta and Messenger in 2005. The largest discrepancy was found for the NEAR (around 13 mm/s) and this is attributed to the very close distance of 532 Km to the surface of the Earth at the perigee.”

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

Another mystery is that while in some cases the anomaly was clear, in others it was on the threshold of detectability or simply absent – as was the case with Juno‘s flyby of Earth in October of 2013. The absence of any convincing explanation has led to a number of explanations, ranging from the influence or dark matter and tidal effects to extensions of General Relativity and the existence of new physics.

However, none of these have produced a substantive explanation that could account for flyby anomalies. To address this, Acedo and his colleagues sought to create a model that was optimized for the Juno mission while at perijove – i.e. the point in the probe’s orbit where it is closest to Jupiter’s center. As Acedo explained:

After the arrival of Juno at Jupiter on July, 4th, 2016, we had the idea of developing our independent orbital model to compare with the fitted trajectories that were being calculated by the JPL team at NASA. After all, Juno is performing very close flybys of Jupiter because the altitude over the top clouds (around 4000 km) is a small fraction of the planet’s radius. So, we expected to find the anomaly here.  This would be an interesting addition to our knowledge of this effect because it would prove that it is not only a particular problem with Earth flybys but that it is universal.”

Their model took into account the tidal forces exerted by the Sun and by Jupiter’s larger satellites – Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto – and also the contributions of the known zonal harmonics. They also accounted for Jupiter’s multipolar fields, which are the result of the planet oblate shape, since these play a far more important role than tidal forces as Juno reaches perijove.

Illustration of NASA’s Juno spacecraft firing its main engine to slow down and go into orbit around Jupiter. Lockheed Martin built the Juno spacecraft for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Credit: NASA/Lockheed Martin

In the end, they determined that an anomaly could also be present during the Juno flybys of Jupiter. They also noted a significant radial component in this anomaly, one which decayed the farther the probe got from the center of Jupiter. As Acebo explained:

“Our conclusion is that an anomalous acceleration is also acting upon the Juno spacecraft in the vicinity of the perijove (in this case, the asymptotic velocity is not a useful concept because the trajectory is closed). This acceleration is almost one hundred times larger than the typical anomalous accelerations responsible for the anomaly in the case of the Earth flybys. This was already expected in connection with Anderson et al.’s initial intuition that the effect increases with the angular rotational velocity of the planet (a period of 9.8 hours for Jupiter vs the 24 hours of the Earth), the radius of the planet and probably its mass.”

They also determined that this anomaly appears to be dependent on the ratio between the spacecraft’s radial velocity and the speed of light, and that this decreases very fast as the craft’s altitude over Jupiter’s clouds changes. These issues were not predicted by General Relativity, so there is a chance that flyby anomalies are the result of novel gravitational phenomena – or perhaps, a more conventional effect that has been overlooked.

In the end, the model that resulted from their calculations accorded closely with telemetry data provided by the Juno mission, though questions remain. Further research is necessary because the pattern of the anomaly seems very complex and a single orbit (or a sequence of similar orbits as in the case of Juno) cannot map the whole field,” said Acebo. “A dedicated mission is required but financial cuts and limited interest in experimental gravity may prevent us to see this mission in the near future.”

It is a testament to the complexities of physics that even after sixty years of space exploration – and one hundred years since General Relativity was first proposed – that we are still refining our models. Perhaps someday we will find there are no mysteries left to solve, and the Universe will make perfect sense to us. What a terrible day that will be!

Further Reading: Earth and Planetary Astrophysics

Juno Finds that Jupiter’s Gravitational Field is “Askew”

Since it established orbit around Jupiter in July of 2016, the Juno mission has been sending back vital information about the gas giant’s atmosphere, magnetic field and weather patterns. With every passing orbit – known as perijoves, which take place every 53 days – the probe has revealed more interesting things about Jupiter, which scientists will rely on to learn more about its formation and evolution.

During its latest pass, the probe managed to provide the most detailed look to date of the planet’s interior. In so doing, it learned that Jupiter’s powerful magnetic field is askew, with different patterns in it’s northern and southern hemispheres. These findings were shared on Wednesday. Oct. 18th, at the 48th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s Division of Planetary Sciencejs in Provo, Utah.

Ever since astronomers began observing Jupiter with powerful telescopes, they have been aware of its swirling, banded appearance. These colorful stripes of orange, brown and white are the result of Jupiter’s atmospheric composition, which is largely made up of hydrogen and helium but also contains ammonia crystals and compounds that change color when exposed to sunlight (aka. chromofores).

Illustration of NASA’s Juno spacecraft firing its main engine to slow down and go into orbit around Jupiter. Credit: NASA/Lockheed Martin

Until now, researchers have been unclear as to whether or not these bands are confined to a shallow layer of the atmosphere or reach deep into the interior of the planet. Answering this question is one of the main goals of the Juno mission, which has been studying Jupiter’s magnetic field to see how it’s interior atmosphere works. Based on the latest results, the Juno team has concluded that hydrogen-rich gas is flowing asymmetrically deep in the planet.

These findings were also presented in a study titled Comparing Jupiter interior structure models to Juno gravity measurements and the role of a dilute core, which appeared in the May 28th issue of Geophysical Research Letters. The study was led by Sean Wahl, a grad student from UC Berkeley, and included members from the Weizmann Institute of Science, the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Another interesting find was that Jupiter’s gravity field varies with depth, which indicated that material is flowing as far down as 3,000 km (1,864 mi). Combined with information obtained during previous perijoves, this latest data suggests that Jupiter’s core is small and poorly defined. This flies in the face of previous models of Jupiter, which held that the outer layers are gaseous while the interior ones are made up of metallic hydrogen and a rocky core.

As Tristan Guillot – a planetary scientist at the Observatory of the Côte d’Azur in Nice, France, and a co-author on the study – indicated during the meeting, “This is something that was not expected. We were not sure at all whether we would be able to see that… It’s clear that giant planets have a lot of secrets.”


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

But of course, more passes and data are needed in order to pinpoint how strong the flow of gases are at various depths, which could resolve the question of how Jupiter’s interior is structured. In the meantime, the Juno scientists are pouring over the probe’s gravity data hoping to see what else it can teach them. For instance, they also want to know how far the Great Red Spot extends into the amotpshere.

This anticyclonic storm, which was first spotted in the 17th century, is Jupiter’s most famous feature. In addition to being large enough to swallow Earth whole – measuring some 16,000 kilometers (10,000 miles) in diameter – wind speeds can reach up to 120 meters per second (432 km/h; 286 mph) at its edges. Already the JunoCam has snapped some very impressive pictures of this storm, and other data has indicated that the storm could run deep.

In fact, on July 10th, 2017, the Juno probe passed withing 9,000 km (5,600 mi) of the Great Red Spot, which took place during its sixth orbit (perijove six) of Jupiter. With it’s suite of eight scientific instruments directed at the storm, the probe obtained readings that indicated that the Great Red Spot could also extend hundreds of kilometers into the interior, or possibly even deeper.

As David Stevenson, a planetary scientist at the California Institute of Technology and a co-author on the study, said during the meeting, “It’s not yet clear that it is so deep it will show up in gravity data. But we’re trying”.

Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, as imaged by the Juno spacecraft’s JunoCam at a distance of just 9,000 km (5,600 mi) from the atmosphere. Credit : NASA/SwRI/MSSS/TSmith

Other big surprises which Juno has revealed since it entered orbit around Jupiter include the clusters of cyclones located at each pole. These were visible to the probe’s instruments in both the visible and infrared wavelengths as it made its first maneuver around the planet, passing from pole to pole. Since Juno is the first space probe in history to orbit the planet this way, these storms were previously unknown to scientists.

In total, Juno spotted eight cyclonic storms around the north pole and five around the south pole. Scientists were especially surprised to see these, since computer modelling suggests that such small storms would not be stable around the poles due to the planet’s swirling polar winds. The answer to this, as indicated during the presentation, may have to do with a concept known as vortex crystals.

As Fachreddin Tabataba-Vakili – a planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a co-author on the study – explained, such crystals are created when small vortices form and persist as the material in which they are embedded continues to flow. This phenomenon has been seen on Earth in the form of rotating superfluids, and Jupiter’s swirling poles may possess similar dynamics.

In the short time that Juno has been operating around Jupiter, it has revealed much about the planet’s atmosphere, interior, magnetic field and internal dynamics. Long after the mission is complete – which will take place in February of 2018 when the probe is crashed into Jupiter’s atmosphere – scientists are likely to be sifting through all the data it obtained, hoping to solve any remaining mysteries from the Solar System’s largest and most massive planet.

Further Reading: Nature

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

Juno Will Get No Closer To Jupiter Due To Engine Troubles

On July 4th, 2016, the Juno mission established orbit around Jupiter, becoming the second spacecraft in history to do so (after the Galileo probe). Since then, the probe has been in a regular 53.4-day orbit (known as perijove), moving between the poles to avoid the worst of its radiation belts. Originally, Juno’s mission scientists had been hoping to reduce its orbit to a 14-day cycle so the probe could make more passes to gather more data.

To do this, Juno was scheduled for an engine burn on Oct. 19th, 2016, during its second perijovian maneuver. Unfortunately, a technical error prevented this  from happening. Ever since, the mission team has been pouring over mission data to determine what went wrong and if they could conduct an engine burn at a later date. However, the mission team has now concluded that this won’t be possible.

The technical glitch which prevented the firing took place weeks before the engine burn was scheduled to take place, and was traced to two of the engines helium check valves. After the propulsion system was pressurized, the valves took several minutes to open – whereas they took only seconds during previous engine burns. Because of this, the mission leaders chose to postpone the firing until they could get a better understanding of why the glitch happened.

This amateur-processed image was taken on Dec. 11th, 2016, at 9:27 a.m. PST (12:27 p.m. EST), as NASA’s Juno spacecraft performed its third close flyby of Jupiter. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Eric Jorgensen

And after pouring over mission data from the past few months and performing calculations on possible maneuvers, Juno’s science team came to the conclusion that an engine burn might be counter-productive at this point. As Rick Nybakken, the Juno project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), explained in a recent NASA press release:

“During a thorough review, we looked at multiple scenarios that would place Juno in a shorter-period orbit, but there was concern that another main engine burn could result in a less-than-desirable orbit. The bottom line is a burn represented a risk to completion of Juno’s science objectives.”

However, this is not exactly bad news for the mission. It’s current perijove orbit takes it from one pole to the other, allowing it to pass over the cloud tops at a distance of around 4,100 km (2,600 mi) at its closest. At its farthest, the spacecraft reaches a distance of 8.1 million km (5.0 million mi) from the gas giant, which places it far beyond the orbit of Callisto.

During each pass, the probe is able to peak beneath the thick clouds to learn more about the planet’s atmosphere, internal structure, magnetosphere, and formation. And while a 14-day orbital period would allow for it to conduct 37 orbits before its mission is scheduled to wrap up, its current 53.4-day period will allow for more information to be collected on each pass.

And as Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, declared:

“Juno is healthy, its science instruments are fully operational, and the data and images we’ve received are nothing short of amazing. The decision to forego the burn is the right thing to do – preserving a valuable asset so that Juno can continue its exciting journey of discovery.”

In the meantime, the Juno science team is still analyzing the returns from Juno’s four previous flybys – which took place on August 27th, October 19th, December 11th, and February 2nd, 2017, respectively. With each pass, more information is revealed about the planet’s magnetic fields, aurorae, and banded appearance. The next perijovian maneuver will take place on March 27th, 2017, and will result in more images and data being collected.

Before the mission concludes, the Juno spacecraft will also explore Jupiter’s far magnetotail, its southern magnetosphere, and its magnetopause. The mission is also conducting an outreach program with its JunoCam, which is being guided with assistance of the public. Not only can people vote on which features they want imaged with every flyby, but these images are accessible to “citizen scientists” and amateur astronomers.

Under its current budget plan, Juno will continue to operate through to July 2018, conducting a total of 12 science orbits. At this point, barring a mission extension, the probe will be de-orbited and burn up in Jupiter’s outer atmosphere. As with the Galileo spacecraft, this will be as to avoid any possibility of impact and biological contamination with one of Jupiter’s moons.

Further Reading: NASA

Juno Buzzes Jupiter a mere 4,300 Km’s above the Cloud Tops

On July 4th, 2016, NASA’s Juno spacecraft made history when it became the second mission to establish orbit around Jupiter – the previous being the Galileo spacecraft, which orbited the planet from 1995 to 2003. Since that time, it has circled the massive gas giant three times, collecting data on the gas giant’s composition, interior and gravity field.

This past Thursday, February 1st, the mission conducted its fourth orbit of the planet. In the process, the spacecraft collected more vital data on the gas giant and snapped several dozen pictures. And in what is has been a first for a space mission, NASA will once again be asking the public what features they would like to see photographed during Juno’s next pass.

Juno made its closest pass (what is known as perijove) to Jupiter at precisely 1257 GMT (7:57 a.m. EST), passing the cloud tops at a distance of 4,300 km (2,670 mi) and traveling at a velocity of about 208,000 km/h (129,300 mph) relative to the gas giant. Using its suite of instruments, it scanned Jupiter’s atmosphere, gathered data on its radiation and plasma, and began returning this information to Earth.

Processed image taken on Dec. 11, 2016, at 9:27 a.m. PST (12:27 p.m. EST) by the NASA Juno spacecraft, as it performed its third close flyby of Jupiter. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Eric Jorgensen

And during this latest pass, the JunoCam snapped several dozen more pictures. During two of its three previous perijove maneuvers, this instruments captured some of the most breathtaking photographs of Jupiter’s clouds to date (like the one seen above). Once they were transmitted back to Earth and made available to the public, “citizen scientistswere able to download and process them at their leisure.

And with this latest pass complete, the public is once again being encouraged to vote on what features they want to see photographed during the next pass. As Candy Hansen, the Juno mission’s co-investigator from the Planetary Science Institute, stated shortly before Juno made its fourth perijovian maneuver:

“The pictures JunoCam can take depict a narrow swath of territory the spacecraft flies over, so the points of interest imaged can provide a great amount of detail. They play a vital role in helping the Juno science team establish what is going on in Jupiter’s atmosphere at any moment. We are looking forward to seeing what people from outside the science team think is important.”

This has all been part of a first-ever effort on behalf of NASA to get the public involved in what kinds of images are to be taken. According to NASA, this is to become a regular feature of the Juno mission, with a  new voting page being created for each upcoming flyby. The next perijovian maneuver will take place on March 27th, 2017, coinciding with the Juno spacecraft’s 53.4-day orbital period.

False color view of Jupiter’s polar haze, created by citizen scientist Gerald Eichstädt using data from the JunoCam instrument. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Eric Jorgensen

Originally, the mission planners had hoped to narrow Juno’s orbital period down to 14 days, which would have been accomplished by having the craft fire its main engine while at perijove. However, two weeks before the engine burn was scheduled to take place (Oct. 19th, 2016), ground controllers noticed a problem with two of the engine’s check valves – which are part of the spacecraft’s fuel pressurization system.

As Juno project manager Rick Nybakken said at the time:

“Telemetry indicates that two helium check valves that play an important role in the firing of the spacecraft’s main engine did not operate as expected during a command sequence that was initiated yesterday. The valves should have opened in a few seconds, but it took several minutes. We need to better understand this issue before moving forward with a burn of the main engine.”

Because of this technical issue, the mission leaders chose to postpone the engine burn so they could check the craft’s instruments to get a better understanding of why it happened. The Juno team was hoping to use the third orbit of the spacecraft to study the problem, but this was interrupted when a software performance monitor induced a reboot of the spacecraft’s onboard computer.

To accomplish its science objectives, Juno is orbiting Jupiter’s poles and passing very close to the planet, avoiding the most powerful (and hazardous) radiation belts in the process. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Because of this, the spacecraft went into safe mode during its third flyby, which prevented them from gathering data on the engine valve problem. On Oct. 24th, the mission controllers managed to get the craft to exit safe mode and performed a trim maneuver in preparation for its next flyby. But the mystery of why the engine valves failed to open remains, and the mission team is still unable to resolve the problem.

Thus, the decision to fire the main engine (thereby shortening its orbital period) has been postponed until they get it back online. But as Scott Bolton – the Associate Director of R&D at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) and Juno’s Principal Investigator – has emphasized in the past:

“It is important to note that the orbital period does not affect the quality of the science that takes place during one of Juno’s close flybys of Jupiter. The mission is very flexible that way. The data we collected during our first flyby on August 27th was a revelation, and I fully anticipate a similar result from Juno’s October 19th flyby.”

In the meantime, the Juno science team is still analyzing data from all previous Jupiter flybys. During each pass, the spacecraft and its instruments peer beneath Jupiter’s dense cloud cover to study its auroras, its magnetic field, and to learn more about the planet’s structure, composition, and formation. And with the public’s help, it is also providing some of the clearest and most detailed imagery of the gas giant to date.

Further Reading: NASA