91 Astronomers Combine 1000 Images Into One Amazing Journey to Jupiter

A renewed era of space exploration is underway. Compared to the Space Race of the 20th century, which was characterized by two superpowers locked in a game of “getting there first”, the new era is defined predominantly by cooperation and open participation. One way in which this is evident is the role played by “citizen scientists” and amateur astronomers in exploration missions.

Consider the recently-released short film titled “A Journey to Jupiter” by Peter Rosen – a photographer and digital artist in Stockholm, Sweden. Using over 1000 images taken by amateur planetary photographers from around the world, this film takes viewers on a virtual journey to the Jovian planet, showcasing its weather patterns and dynamic nature in a way that is truly inspiring.

The images that went into making this video were collected by over 91 amateur astronomers over the course of three and a half months (between December 19th, 2014 and March 31st, 2015). After Rosen collected them, he and his associates (Christoffer Svenske and Johan Warell) then spent a year remapping them into cylindrical projections. Rosen then added color corrections, and stitched all the images into a total of 107 maps.

Much like fast-motion videos that illustrate weather patterns on Earth, or the passage of the stars across the night sky, the end result of was a film that shows the motions of Jupiter’s cloud belts and its Great Red Spot in high-resolution. Some 250 revolutions of the planet are illustrated, including from the equatorial band, the south pole, and the north pole.

As Rosen told Universe Today via email, this project was the latest in a lifelong pursuit of making astronomy accessible to the public:

“I have been into Astronomy since I was a teenager in the early 1970’s and immediately I got a passion for astrophotography, and more specifically, photographing the planets. I see astronomy as a life-long passion, so it is quite normal to strive for an evolution in what you do. I had an idea growing slowly for some years that it should be possible to animate the cloud belts of Jupiter and reveal the intricate dynamics of its flows, not just taking still pictures that might point to the changes in the structures but without the obvious visual dynamics of an animation.”

A Journey to Jupiter” was also Rosen’s contribution to the Mission Juno Pro-Amateur Collaboration Project, of which he is part. Established by Glenn Orton of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, this effort is one of several that seeks to connect amateurs and professionals in support of space exploration. Back in May of 2016, this group met in Nice, France, for a workshop dedicated to projects and techniques related to Jupiter observations.

Still-pic from Rosen’s “A Journey to Jupiter” video. Credit: Peter Rosen et al via Youtube.

Among other items discussed was the limitations that missions like Juno have to deal with. While it is capable of taking very-high resolution images of Jupiter, these images are highly specific in nature. And before a team of mission scientists are able to color-correct them and stitch them together to create panoramas, etc., they are not always what you might call “visually stunning”.

However, Earth-based observatories are not hampered by this restriction, and can take multiple images of a planet over time that capture it as a whole. And thanks to the availability of sophisticated telescopes and imaging software, amateur astronomers are capable of making important contributions in this regard. And far from these being strictly for scientific purposes, there is also the added benefit of public engagement.

“This has been a very technical and scientifically correct project,” said Rosen, “but as a photographer and digital artist I also wanted to create a work of art that would inspire and appeal to people who are fascinated by the universe but who are not necessarily into astronomy.”

Of course, this does not detract from the scientific value that this film has. For example, it showcases the turbulent nature of Jupiter’s atmosphere in a way that is scientifically accurate. Hence why Ricardo Hueso Alonso – a physicist at the University of Basque Country and a member of the Planetary Virtual Observatory and Laboratory (PVOL) – plans to use the maps to measure Jupiter’s wind speeds at different latitudes.

Reprocessed image taken by the 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

On top of its artistic and scientific merit, “A Journey to Jupiter” also serves as a testament to the skill and capability of the today’s amateur astronomers and planetary photographers. And of course, it draws attention to the efforts of space missions such as Juno, which is currently skimming the clouds of Jupiter to obtain the most comprehensive information about the planet’s atmosphere and magnetic field to date.

Not surprisingly, this is not the first film by Rosen that combines scientific accuracy and fast-motion visuals. The short film Voyager 3, released back in June of 2014, was an homage by Rosen and six other Swedish amateur astronomers to the Voyager 1 mission. As the probe made its 28-day final approach to Jupiter in 1979, it snapped what were the most detailed images of Jupiter at the time.

These images helped to improve our understanding of the gas giant, its atmosphere, and its moons. Among other things, hey revealed the turbulent nature of Jupiter’s atmosphere, and that the Great Red Spot had changed color since the Pioneer 10 and 11 missions had flown by in 1973 and 74. Produced 35 years later, Voyager 3 was an attempt to recreate this historic event using images taken by Swedish amateur astronomers using their own ground-based telescopes.

Over the course of 90 days, Rosen and his colleagues captured one million frames of Jupiter, which resulted in 560 still images of the planet. These were then stitched together using a series of software programs (Winjupos, Photoshop CS6, Fantamorph, and StarryNightPro+) to create a simulation that gives the impression of a probe approaching the planet – i.e. like a third Voyager mission, hence the name of the film.

“As Jupiter was ideally positioned high in the sky in 2013-2014 for us living far up in the northern hemisphere, I decided that it was the right moment to give it a try, so I contacted 6 other amateurs on our local forum that shared my passion for the planets,” Rosen said. “We photographed Jupiter as often as we could during a 3-month period and I took care of the processing of the images which took me a total of 6 months.”

It is an exciting time to be alive. Not only are a greater number of national space agencies taking part in the exploration of the Solar System; but more than ever, citizen scientists, amateurs and members of the general public are able to participate in a way that was never before possible.

To view more work by Peter Rosen, be sure to check out his page at Vimeo.

Further Reading: NASA

The Next Generation of Exploration: The DAVINCI Spacecraft

It’s no secret that there has been a resurgence in interest in space exploration in recent years. Much of the credit for this goes to NASA’s ongoing exploration efforts on Mars, which in the past few years have revealed things like organic molecules on the surface, evidence of flowing water, and that the planet once had a denser atmosphere –  all of which indicate that the planet may have once been hospitable to life.

But when it comes to the future, NASA is looking beyond Mars to consider missions that will send missions to Venus, near-Earth objects, and a variety of asteroids. With an eye to Venus, they are busy investigating the possibility of sending the Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging (DAVINCI) spacecraft to the planet by the 2020s.

Led by Lori Glaze of the Goddard Spaceflight Center, the DAVINCI descent craft would essentially pick up where the American and Soviet space programs left off with the Pioneer and Venera Programs in the 1970s and 80s. The last time either country sent a probe into Venus’ atmosphere was in 1985, when the Soviet probes Vega 1 and 2 both orbited the planet and released a balloon-supported aerobot into the upper atmosphere.

Model of the Vega 1 solar system probe bus and landing apparatus (model) - Udvar-Hazy Center, Dulles International Airport, Chantilly, Virginia, USA. Credit: historicspacecraft.com
Model of the Vega 1 probe and landing apparatus at the Udvar-Hazy Center, Dulles International Airport, Chantilly, Virginia. Credit: historicspacecraft.com

These probes both remained operational for 46 hours and discovered just how turbulent and powerful Venus’ atmosphere was. In contrast, the DAVINCI probe’s mission will be to study both the atmosphere and surface of Venus, and hopefully shed some light on some of the planet’s newfound mysteries. According to the NASA release:

“DAVINCI would study the chemical composition of Venus’ atmosphere during a 63-minute descent. It would answer scientific questions that have been considered high priorities for many years, such as whether there are volcanoes active today on the surface of Venus and how the surface interacts with the atmosphere of the planet.”

These studies will attempt to build upon the data obtained by the Venus Express spacecraft, which in 2008/2009 noted the presence of several infrared hot spots in the Ganis Chasma region near the the shield volcano of Maat Mons (shown below). Believed to be due to volcanic eruptions, this activity was thought to be responsible for significant changes that were noted in the sulfur dioxide (SO²) content in the atmosphere at the time.

What’s more, the Pioneer Venus spacecraft – which studied the planet’s atmosphere from 1978 until its orbit decayed in 1992 – noted a tenfold decreased in the density of SO² at the cloud tops, which was interpreted as a decline following an episode of volcanogenic upwelling from the lower atmosphere.

3-D perspective of the Venusian volcano, Maat Mons generated from radar data from NASA’s Magellan mission.
3-D perspective of the Venusian volcano, Maat Mons, generated from radar data from NASA’s Magellan mission. Credit: NASA/JPL

Commonly associated with volcanic activity here on Earth, SO² is a million times more abundant in Venus’ atmosphere, where it helps to power the runaway greenhouse effect that makes the planet so inhospitable. However, any SO² released into Venus’ atmosphere is also short-lived, being broken down by sunlight within a matter of days.

Hence, any significant changes in SO² levels in the upper atmosphere must have been a recent addition, and some scientists believe that the spike observed in 2008/2009 was due to a large volcano (or several) erupting. Determining whether or not this is the case, and whether or not volcanic activity plays an active role in the composition of Venus’s thick atmosphere, will be central to DAVINCI’s mission.

Along with four other mission concepts, DAVINCI was selected as a semifinalist for the NASA Discovery Program‘s latest calls for proposed missions. Every few years, the Discovery Program – a low-cost planetary missions program that is managed by the JPL’s Planetary Science Division – puts out a call for missions with an established budget of around $500 million (not counting the cost of launch or operation).

The latest call for submissions took place in February 2014, as part of the Discovery Mission 13. At the time, a total of 27 teams threw their hats into the ring to become part of the next round of space exploration missions. Last Wednesday, September 30th, 2015, five semifinalists were announced, one (or possibly two) of which will be chosen as the winner(s) by September 2016.

Artist rendition of NASA’s Mars InSight (Interior exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) Lander. InSight is based on the proven Phoenix Mars spacecraft and lander design with state-of-the-art avionics from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) missions. Credit: JPL/NASA
Artist rendition of NASA’s Mars InSight (Interior exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) Lander, which was selected as part of the Discovery Programs 2010 call for submissions and will be launched by 2016. Credit: JPL/NASA

These finalists will receive $3 million in federal grants for detailed concept studies, and the mission (or missions) that are ultimately chosen will be launched by December 31st, 2021. The Discovery Program began back in 1992, and launched its first mission- the Mars Pathfinder – in 1996. Other Discovery missions include the NEAR Shoemaker probe that first orbited an asteroid, and the Stardust-NExT project, which returned samples of comet and interstellar dust to Earth.

NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft, the planet-hunting Kepler telescope, and the Dawn spacecraft were also developed and launched under the Discovery program. The winning proposal of the Discovery Program’s 12th mission, which was issued back in 2010, was the InSight Mars lander. Set to launch in March of 2016, the lander will touch down on the red planet, deploy instruments to the planet’s interior, and measure its seismic activity.

NASA hopes to infuse the next mission with new technologies, offering up government-furnished equipment with incentives to sweeten the deal for  each proposal. These include a supply of deep space optical communications system that are intended to test new high-speed data links with Earth. Science teams that choose to incorporate the laser telecom unit will be entitled to an extra $30 million above their $450 million cost cap.

If science teams wish to send entry probes into the atmospheres of Venus or Saturn, they will need a new type of heat shield. Hence, NASA’s solicitation includes a provision to furnish a newly-developed 3D-woven heat shield with a $10 million incentive. A deep space atomic clock is also available with a $5 million bonus, and NASA has offered to provide xenon ion thrusters and radioisotope heater units without incentives.

As with previous Discovery missions, NASA has stipulated that the mission must use solar power, limiting mission possibilities beyond Jupiter and Saturn. Other technologies may include the NEXT ion thruster and/or re-entry technology.