Tag Archives: Juno

Amateur astronomer finds and christens Clyde’s Spot — a new storm on Jupiter

Although NASA has sent a craft to Jupiter’s orbit — the Juno probe — a newly-named region of the planet was recently spotted by an amateur astronomer.

Clyde’s Spot, seen here in the center as a white maelstrom, just below and to the right of the Great Red Spot. Image processed by Kevin Gill using JunoCam data.
Image credits NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS / Kevin M. Gill.

The structure, a swirl not far from the planet’s infamous Great Red Spot, has been christened the somewhat anticlimactic ‘Clyde’s Spot‘. At the time it was observed, Juno was flying between 28,000 miles and 59,000 miles (45,000 to 95,000 kilometers) above Jupiter’s southern cloud tops.

Long-distance spotting

“The feature is a plume of cloud material erupting above the upper cloud layers of the Jovian atmosphere,” according to a NASA description of the new imagery. “These powerful convective ‘outbreaks’ occasionally erupt in this latitude band, known as the South Temperate Belt.”

After it was spotted by Clyde Foster from Centurion, South Africa on May 31, Juno moved in to take some better-quality pictures of the structure on June 2 — which is, as far as we know, a storm.

It rages in swirls not far off from Jupiter’s centuries-old Great Red Spot. Unlike the iconic storm, however, Clyde’s Spot is young, having just popped up. It’s not the first time such a storm appeared out of the brown and orange clouds: Juno captured another similar system at this latitude back in February of 2018.

An image of Jupiter taken by Clyde Foster. The new storm sits just below and to the right of the Great Red Spot.
Image credits Clyde Foster.

Juno orbits Jupiter on an elliptical orbit, so it does most of its data-gathering every 53.3 (Earth) days as it comes closest to the gas giant. Its latest fly-by luckily placed it at the ideal angle to capture Clyde’s Spot on its JunoCam. NASA makes JunoCam images available to the public, and citizen scientist Kevin Gill processed five of its images into a composite view of Clyde’s Spot. Gill is responsible for many of the striking NASA images you’ve seen online.

Both his work and that of Foster shows that there’s enough space in space exploration for everybody down here on terra firma — and an amazing wealth of beauty and science to share with us.

Jupiter magnetic field.

Jupiter’s magnetic field is extremely bizarre, potentially due to unknown processes in its core

Jupiter’s magnetic field is crazy!

Jupiter, Io.

Jupiter and Io, one of its many moons.
Image via Pixabay.

The first map of the Jovian magnetic field has been compiled by an international team of researchers — and heads are still being scratched over it. The gas giants’ magnetic field is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before, hinting at unknown processes going on beneath its surface.

King of the gods

It didn’t come as much of a surprise to any researcher that Jupiter’s magnetic field is in a class of its own. While the gas giant boasts 11 times the diameter of our planet, it’s magnetic field is over 20,000 times as strong. It’s also much larger and has several complex features that have no counterpart in our own planet’s magnetic signature. These features, as far as we can tell, may stem from Jupiter’s rapid rotation and large liquid metallic hydrogen interior.

New data beamed back by the Juno spacecraft — which is still busy orbiting around the planet’s poles — allowed researchers from the US and Denmark to study this magnetic field much more closely than ever before. Starting from this data, which was recovered during eight orbits, they mapped the magnetic field in unprecedented detail at depths up to 10,000 kilometers (6,214 miles). Instead of making things more clear, however, the wealth of data only created further confusion. Take a look:

Jupiter magnetic field.

Image credits Moore et al., 2018, Nature.

Jupiter’s magnetic field emerges from a broad area close to its North pole (red on the image above) and re-enters around the South pole — so far, not especially surprising. What is very surprising, however, is that part of the magnetic field re-enters through a highly concentrated region just south of the equator — an area the team calls the Great Blue Spot.

The field is much weaker outside of these areas (grey-blue in the image above).

Earth’s magnetic field is dipolar. The field emerges from the South pole, re-enters through the North pole, and runs through the center of the planet. There are small non-dipolar components, but they’re relatively evenly spread out across the two hemispheres and they’re nowhere near as massive as the Great Blue Spot.

None of it prepared us for Jupiter’s hectic magnetic display.

“Before the Juno mission, our best maps of Jupiter’s field resembled Earth’s field,” planetary scientist Kimberly Moore of Harvard University told Newsweek. “The main surprise was that Jupiter’s field is so simple in one hemisphere and so complicated in the other. None of the existing models predicted a field like that.”

Juptier magnetic full.

Image credits

The lop-sided nature of Jupiter’s magnetic field points to yet-undiscovered processes under the surface. Magnetic fields are the product of churning flows of conductive liquids inside a planet. As the planet rotates, these liquids create magnetic fields — just like a dynamo.

Earth’s ‘dynamo’ is encased by a solid crust; the team believes their results suggest Jupiter’s dynamo lacks this casing. One of the models they propose envisions Jupiter’s core not as a solid, but as a slush — a mixture of rock and ice partially dissolved in liquid metallic hydrogen. Such a structure could create layers that would result in an asymmetrical magnetic field, they explain.

Another possibility would be that helium rains on the planet work to destabilize the field. This scenario, however, fails to satisfactorily explain the asymmetry seen in the magnetic field.

Juno is still orbiting Jupiter and will continue for quite some time. The team hopes to use further observations to better understand the magnetic field they’ve uncovered.

The paper “A complex dynamo inferred from the hemispheric dichotomy of Jupiter’s magnetic field” has been published in the journal Nature.

This swirling pattern of color isn’t some long-lost Van Gogh oil painting — it’s Jupiter and the tumultuous vortices that dot its northern hemisphere.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstädt /Seán Doran.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstädt /Seán Doran.

The picture was snapped by the Juno spacecraft on May 23, 2018, during the spacecraft’s 13th close flyby of Jupiter. At the time, Juno was about 9,600 miles from the planet’s cloud tops.

According to NASA, the darker clouds are found deeper in the Jovian planet’s atmosphere while the bright clouds are found higher up into the atmosphere. These bright clouds are likely made of ammonia or ammonia and water, mixed with some yet unknown chemical ingredients. The bright oval at the bottom center of the picture — the one which resembles a cosmic eye — appears uniformly white to ground-based telescopes. From very close, however, we can resolve fine-scale features within the weather system. Just like in the case of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, winds probably slow down greatly toward the center, where there doesn’t seem to be that much motion compared to the exterior of the eye.

Remarkably, the image was not processed by NASA. Citizen scientists Gerald Eichstädt and Seán Doran were responsible for the final image, who used data from the spacecraft’s JunoCam imager. Check out more pictures like this along with unprocessed data that anyone can use at the Juno Mission homepage.

This month, Juno was supposed to reach the climax of its mission by diving into the gas giant. NASA, however, decided to offer a three-year extension to the mission which means more opportunities for both science and eye candy such as the view feature here. Juno’s end of prime operations is now expected in July 2021, with data analysis and mission close-out activities continuing into 2022.

“This is great news for planetary exploration as well as for the Juno team,” said Scott Bolton, principal investigator of Juno, from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “These updated plans for Juno will allow it to complete its primary science goals. As a bonus, the larger orbits allow us to further explore the far reaches of the Jovian magnetosphere — the region of space dominated by Jupiter’s magnetic field — including the far magnetotail, the southern magnetosphere, and the magnetospheric boundary region called the magnetopause.”

“We have also found Jupiter’s radiation environment in this orbit to be less extreme than expected, which has been beneficial to not only our spacecraft, but our instruments and the continued quality of science data collected.”

Jupiter Lightning.

The curious case of Jupiter’s lightning, solved by the Juno craft

Lightning bolts on Jupiter are both similar and completely different from those on Earth, research suggests.

Jupiter Lightning.

Artist’s concept of lightning in Jupiter’s northern hemisphere. The image is based on a JunoCam image.
Image credit:sNASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/JunoCam.

A new paper published by NASA’s Juno mission comes to flesh out our understanding of Jovian lightning. Their existence was first confirmed when the Voyager 1 craft flew past Jupiter in March 1979 — but that encounter also left us with more unanswered questions. Radio emissions produced by these lightning bolts didn’t match the signatures of those on Earth, for example.

God of Lightning

“No matter what planet you’re on, lightning bolts act like radio transmitters—sending out radio waves when they flash across a sky,” said lead author Shannon Brown of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

“But until Juno, all the lightning signals recorded by spacecraft were limited to either visual detections or from the kilohertz range of the radio spectrum, despite a search for signals in the megahertz range. Many theories were offered up to explain it, but no one theory could ever get traction as the answer.”

Fancy science-speak for ‘we didn’t have a clue what was up’. The Juno mission, however, gave researchers a chance to dig deeper into Jupiter’s lightning. The craft has been orbiting the gas giant since July 4, 2016. Among other onboard equipment, it boasted a Microwave Radiometer Instrument (MWR) to record emissions across a wide spectrum of frequencies

During its first eight flybys of Jupiter, Juno detected 377 lightning discharges, the team reports. Emissions were recorded in both the megahertz and gigahertz range, “which is what you can find with terrestrial lightning emissions,” according to Brown.

“We think the reason we are the only ones who can see it is because Juno is flying closer to the lighting than ever before, and we are searching at a radio frequency that passes easily through Jupiter’s ionosphere,” she adds.

These recordings show that lightning on Jupiter is very similar to that on Earth — but there are also differences.

Most striking of all is how these discharges are distributed across the planet’s surface. On Jupiter, these bolts of lightning flash frequently across the giant’s poles, but never over the equator. This doesn’t hold true on Earth. The reason behind this, the team believes, is how heat is distributed across the two planets.

The overwhelming majority of heat on Earth comes from the Sun. Our equator receives a much larger slice of this energy than the rest of the planet (that’s why it’s the hottest bit), meaning air masses above the equator have a lot of energy at their disposal to move around through convection. This movement is what fuels the thunderstorms which, in turn, produce lightning.

On Jupiter, however, sunlight is much, much dimmer. The giant is, after all, five times farther away from the Sun than Earth. This means the planet receives 25 times less heat than our planet. Most of the energy in Jupiter’s atmosphere is derived from its solid core. However, the team explains, that tiny quantity of heat it does receive from the Sun does heat up its equator more than the poles. The team believes that this difference in temperature is enough to stabilize Jupiter’s upper atmosphere around the equator, preventing gases further below to rise through convection.

The atmosphere around Jupiter’s poles, which receive less energy, isn’t stable — warm gases rising from below drive convection processes, creating lightning.

“These findings could help to improve our understanding of the composition, circulation and energy flows on Jupiter,” said Brown. But another question looms, she said. “Even though we see lightning near both poles, why is it mostly recorded at Jupiter’s north pole?”

The paper “Prevalent lightning sferics at 600 megahertz near Jupiter’s poles” has been published in the journal Nature.

New NASA data reveals many of Jupiter’s hidden secrets

A series of four papers using data from NASA’s Juno mission reveals intriguing information about Jupiter, including its gravitational field, its atmospheric flows, its interior composition and its polar cyclones.

Jupiter’s winds are tightly connected to the planet’s gravitational and magnetic fields. Image credits: NASA / ESA / UC Berkeley.

When the Juno mission was successfully launched in 2011, astronomers worldwide were thrilled. The shuttle had the potential to reveal valuable information about Jupiter and its satellites — and that potential has been thoroughly fulfilled. The new papers are the latest in a long chain of remarkable findings about the most massive planet in our solar system, adding some much-needed pieces to the puzzle.

In the first paper, researchers led by Luciano Iess of the Sapienza University of Rome in Italy used Doppler data to study Jupiter’s gravitational field. The data allowed researchers to measure Juno’s velocity down to 0.01mm/s accuracy, even while the shuttle is traveling at speeds of up to 70 km/s in orbit.

Jupiter’s gravitational field is famously asymmetrical, which is unusual for fast-rotating and oblate (squashed at the poles) gas giants. This gravitational asymmetry is caused by hydrogen-rich gas is flowing asymmetrically deep in the planet, and Juno was able to study this process.

This picture of the Jupiter’s South Pole is a mosaic of many images acquired by the Jovian InfraRed Auroral Mapper on board the Juno shuttle. The images have been taken in different times while Juno was leaving the planet after the closest approach. What you see here is the heat (measured as radiance) coming out from the planet through the clouds: yellow indicates the presence of thinner clouds and dark red the thicker ones.

Two other papers looked at different physical parameters of Jupiter. A team led by Yohai Kaspi of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel used another asymmetry, that of Jupiter’s magnetic field, to calculate the depth of Jupiter’s atmosphere, finding that the mass of the atmosphere amounts for about 1% of the planet’s total mass. Meanwhile, Tristan Guillot and co-authors report that at depths greater than 3,000 kilometers below cloud level, Jupiter’s deep interior is made up of a fluid mixture of hydrogen and helium, rotating as a solid body. They also found that the speed of the above-mentioned winds extend some 3,000 km beneath the cloud level, dropping in intensity with altitude.

Even with all this information, we’re still just barely scratching the surface of what we know about Jupiter.

“We’re at the beginning of dissecting Jupiter,” says Juno mission leader Scott Bolton of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.

However, there’s also a downside to the Juno mission: it offered so much valuable data that it’s gonna be very hard to top it. In an accompanying News&Views article, planetary scientist Jonathan Fortney of the University of California Santa Cruz praised the work, writing:

“The work demonstrated here is extremely robust,” Fortney wrote in his editorial. “I do not foresee another leap in knowledge on Jupiter’s interior after the Juno mission ends, unless astronomers are able to study the planet’s internal oscillations, as has been done for the Sun.”

Fortunately, Juno will remain in orbit for at least a couple of years, so we’ll certainly have more to learn about Jupiter.

Journal References:

  1. Measurement of Jupiter’s asymmetric gravity field. Corresponding Author: Luciano Iess (Sapienza Università di Roma, Rome, Italy). DOI: 10.1038/nature25776. http://nature.com/articles/doi:10.1038/nature25776
  2. Jupiter’s atmospheric jet streams extend thousands of kilometres deep. Corresponding Author: Yohai Kaspi (Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, Israel). DOI: 10.1038/nature25793. http://nature.com/articles/doi:10.1038/nature25793
  3. A suppression of differential rotation in Jupiter’s deep interior. Corresponding Author: Tristan Guillot (Université Côte d’Azur, Nice, France). DOI: 10.1038/nature25775. http://nature.com/articles/doi:10.1038/nature25775
  4. Clusters of cyclones encircling Jupiter’s poles. Corresponding Author: Alberto Adriani (INAF-Istituto di Astrofisica e Planetologia Spaziali, Rome, Italy). DOI: 10.1038/nature25491. http://nature.com/articles/doi:10.1038/nature25491
Credit: NASA/JPL.

NASA shares unique time-lapse of Jupiter’s South Pole

Credit: NASA/JPL.

Credit: NASA/JPL.

Jupiter’s colorful bands or the gas giant’s huge Red Spot typically get all the attention but in a series of novel photos, NASA has finally captured a glimpse of a rare feature: Jupiter’s South Pole. We aren’t disappointed, that’s for sure!

Gas marble

When people think of Jupiter, they picture a colorful marble mainly painted in browns, reds, and off-whites. However, as images beamed back by the Juno spacecraft show, the gas giant is a lot more diverse when viewed from other angles. What immediately caught my eye were the beautiful blue swirling patterns, which resembles a mesmerizing iris.

NASA’s Juno spacecraft took the color-enhanced time-lapse sequence of images during its eleventh close flyby of the gas giant planet on Feb. 7 between 7:21 a.m. and 8:01 a.m. PST.

Although at first glance each picture in the series looks the same, there are slight differences between each image. The differences between the far left image and the far right image, for instance, are more immediately noticeable.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstädt.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstädt.

NASA’s Juno spacecraft arrived at the Jupiter system on July 4, 2016. Its mission is to study the planet in detail to give scientists a better idea of the gas giant’s weather, magnetic environment and formation history.

Juno is only the second long-term mission at Jupiter after the Galileo spacecraft, which orbited the planet from 1995 to 2003. The spacecraft’s two-year mission is scheduled to end in six months. NASA will either crash Juno into Jupiter or extend its mission with a new lease.

Latest results from Juno mission reveal massive surprises about Jupiter

Jupiter’s mysterious North and South pole are very different from one another — though they’re both ravaged by cyclones — and the planet’s aurorae are fundamentally different from those on Earth. These are just two of the surprising discoveries made by NASA’s Juno spacecraft.

Instruments aboard the Juno spacecraft captured these infrared images that show Jupiter’s banded thermal emissions. (J.E.P. Connerney et al., Science 2017).

Just when we thought we were getting to know Jupiter, NASA’s new mission shows us just how little we know. Researchers expected some surprises, but this was beyond even their wildest expectations.

“We knew, going in, that Jupiter would throw us some curves,” said Scott Bolton, Juno principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “But now that we are here we are finding that Jupiter can throw the heat, as well as knuckleballs and sliders. There is so much going on here that we didn’t expect that we have had to take a step back and begin to rethink of this as a whole new Jupiter.”

Juno got a spectacular view of both of Jupiter’s poles, and that’s where the surprises started. Using microwave sounding, a method also used by weather satellites on Earth, they got an even better view of what’s happening in and around Jupiter’s atmosphere. Basically, both the North and the South Poles are covered in Earth-sized swirling storms, densely clustered and often pushing against each other. We’re only now seeing the poles in such detail, and it’s way different than what’s happening on Saturn, for example.

We’re puzzled as to how they could be formed, how stable the configuration is, and why Jupiter’s north pole doesn’t look like the south pole,” said Bolton. “We’re questioning whether this is a dynamic system, and are we seeing just one stage, and over the next year, we’re going to watch it disappear, or is this a stable configuration and these storms are circulating around one another?”

This image shows Jupiter’s south pole, as seen by NASA’s Juno spacecraft from an altitude of 32,000 miles (52,000 kilometers). The oval features are cyclones, up to 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) in diameter. Image credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Betsy Asher Hall/Gervasio Robles.

The next surprise came from the microwave analysis, which analyzed the planet’s atmosphere, from the top of the ammonia clouds to deeper beneath. The data indicates that Jupiter’s emblematic belts and zones exhibit bizarre properties. Notably, the belt near the equator penetrates all the way down, while the belts at other latitudes act differently, transforming into other structures as they go deeper. Astronomers were also expecting to find a stable mixture of gases across the whole planet, but they learned that Jupiter’s storms are not uniform, and there’s a huge, ammonia-rich plume seems to be billowing in the atmosphere.

Jupiter’s magnetosphere also yielded its own surprises. We knew that Jupiter’s magnetic field is very strong, but the observations show that it’s much stronger than astronomic models predicted — and highly irregular in shape. This confirms the fact that Jupiter has a big, solid, inner core, but judging by the size of the magnetic field, it seems the inner core is also bigger than anticipated.

“Juno is giving us a view of the magnetic field close to Jupiter that we’ve never had before,” said Jack Connerney, Juno deputy principal investigator and the lead for the mission’s magnetic field investigation at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “Already we see that the magnetic field looks lumpy: it is stronger in some places and weaker in others. This uneven distribution suggests that the field might be generated by dynamo action closer to the surface, above the layer of metallic hydrogen. Every flyby we execute gets us closer to determining where and how Jupiter’s dynamo works.”

Aurora seen on Jupiter with the Hubble Space Telescope in June 2016, just before Juno arrived at the planet. Image credits: NASA/ESA/J. Nichols (University of Leicester).

But perhaps even stranger is the way Jupiter’s magnetosphere contributes to the formation of aurorae. Like Earth, Jupiter has its own aurorae, but they’re really nothing like each other. Back home, aurorae form as particles from the Sun strike the Earth’s magnetosphere and slam into atmospheric gases, generating light. But on Jupiter, the particles generating the aurorae seem to be travelling from the planet as opposed to towards the planet, which also seems to suggest something about Jupiter’s core: that it is likely made of liquid hydrogen instead of molten iron. You can see these intriguing aurorae here:


Two papers have been published (here and here), detailing these new finds — but NASA’s scientists have much more. A whopping 43 additional papers are available at Geophysical Research Letterswith more and more data coming all the time.

Before Juno, no other spacecraft had ever reached that close to Jupiter. Juno was designed to study Jupiter’s composition, gravity, and magnetic field to help researchers understand how the enormous planet formed — which in turn, could help us understand how planetary systems like our own form. Aside from mapping its gravitational and magnetic field, the shuttle also aims to look into Jupiter’s atmosphere to measure composition, temperature, cloud motions, and other properties, looking beneath the thick atmospheric cover. The shuttle was launched on August 5, 2011, and entered the polar orbit of Jupiter on July 5, 2016, beginning its scientific investigation of the planet. Juno is the first mission to Jupiter to use solar panels instead of the radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTG) used by previous missions. Showing that you can also have fun while uncovering the secrets of the universe, researchers added three Lego minifigures representing Galileo, the Roman god Jupiter, and his sister and wife, the goddess Juno, to the spacecraft. The mission is expected to last until 2018 or 2019, when Juno will perform a controlled deorbit into Jupiter, burning on its trajectory to the gas giant.

NASA releases breathtaking gallery of Jupiter photos

Aside from delivering a trove of valuable information about Jupiter and its nearby environment, the Juno probe has also sent back a number of spectacular photos. After entering Jupiter’s atmosphere, getting closer than ever to the gas giant, and having an unprecedented view on Jupiter’s clouds, Juno has quite the stories to share — it’s Jupiter, like you’ve never seen it before.

Contrast and Color changes both major and subtle to bring out details and also removed longest wavelength color channel to improve sharpness. Oh, and by the way — NASA used MS Paint for this image. All image credits: NASA.

The $1 million Juno spacecraft was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on August 5, 2011 and entered Jupiter’s orbit in 2016. Its major objectives are to understand origin and evolution of Jupiter, look for solid planetary core, map magnetic field, measure water and ammonia in deep atmosphere, observe auroras.

Jupiter’s north Pole. Just look at this majestic planet! Image Credits: NASA / JPL-Caltech / SwRI / MSSS / Roman Tkachenko

Juno is currently engaged in repeated swings around Jupiter, in a wide arc — to minimize exposure to the planet’s intense radiation belts, which can damage sensitive electronics. NASA planned to fire Juno’s thrusters in October to increase the frequency of these flybys but had to cancel plans due to a malfunction of the engine valves. But that doesn’t prevent Juno from carrying on its mission.

This mosaic was building merging the last 3 flyby over the south hemisphere. Also HDR Tones processing was apply using Photoshop, in order to enhance the color contrast. Image credits: Gervasio Robles / NASA.

Here, we picked just some of our favorites (sometimes enhanced by photo editing software, check the description). Head on to Juno’s page to check out the full gallery.

An image created by processing the PJ-4 image 106 (“Oval BA”) raw framelets. This is a perspective view that shows Jupiter from Juno’s vantage point when the original image data was obtained. The effects of global illumination have been removed and the contrast, color and sharpness exaggerated. Image credits: Bjorn_Jonsson / NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Björn Jónsson

An image created by processing the PJ-4 image 106 (“Oval BA”) raw framelets. This is a perspective view that shows Jupiter from Juno’s vantage point when the original image data was obtained. The effects of global illumination have been removed and the contrast, color and sharpness exaggerated. In this view one of the “string of pearl” ovals is visible – the oval called A1. Image credits: Bjorn_Jonsson / NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Björn Jónsson.

This shows the 3 images covering the southern hemisphere, plus context images. The positions of the known circulations and jets are indicated. Image credits: Philosophia-47 / NASA / SwRI / MSSS / John Rogers

NASA cancels maneuver to get Juno closer to Jupiter due to faulty fuel valves — but that’s not bad news

NASA’s Science Mission Directorate has canceled a planned tightening of Juno’s orbit around Jupiter after system checks revealed faulty fuel valves on board the probe.

Image credits NASA / JPL.

Last year on July 4, the Juno probe reached its destination and settled in a comfortable 53-day orbit around Jupiter. On the closest point to the giant during every pass, it would deploy its sensor array and take as many measurements as possible, beaming the data back to Earth for study.

Researchers hoped to reduce Juno’s orbit around the gas giant down to just 14 days to speed up data acquisition from the craft. To do this, they planned on firing the craft’s main engine to reduce its speed and get it closer to Jupiter. Operational tests performed before the braking however showed the two helium check valves which supply the engine did not operate as expected when the system was fully pressurized.

“Telemetry from the spacecraft indicated that it took several minutes for the valves to open, while it took only a few seconds during past main engine firings,” a NASA status report on Friday read.

Rather than risk to lose control on Juno’s current orbit, NASA postponed the maneuver. Since then, researchers have been hard at work looking into how the burn can safely be performed in light of the new technical difficulties.

But it seems they weren’t very confident in their chances. Last week, NASA announced it will abort the maneuver rather than risk to irrevocably alter Juno’s flight path. The probe will maintain its current orbit around Jupiter.

“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,” said project manager Rick Nybakken with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “The bottom line is a burn represented a risk to completion of Juno’s science objectives.”

The good news is that the probe can still perform its task, it will just take a little longer to do so. Both orbits would yield the same quality of data, as they would both take Juno just as close to Jupiter — some 2,600 miles (4,200 km) above the gas giant’s clouds.

Which is not a bad place to be at all, judging from the view.
Image credits Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Roman Tkachenko.

“The worst-case scenario is I have to be patient and get the science slowly,” lead researcher Scott Bolton, with the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, said after the engine problem surfaced in October.

“The science will be just as spectacular as with our original plan,” he added on Friday’s release.

“In fact, the longer orbit provides new opportunities that allow further exploration of the far reaches of space dominated by Jupiter’s magnetic field, increasing the value of Juno’s research,” the statement added.

Another upside of canceling the burn is that a more distant orbit will extend the craft’s operational life. Jupiter’s massive radiation belts were the main killer for Juno, and staying well away from them should better protect its systems.

In light of its extended operational life, Nybakken will probably request additional funding for the US$1.13 billion mission, currently scheduled to end on July 31, 2018 — when Juno would have completed its observations and become inoperable under the effects of radiation. The extended mission now aims at completing 12 close approaches.

Juno has proven instrumental in our understanding of how gas giants form and behave. If you want to take a more active part in its research, you can vote on which features of the planet will be imaged during each flyby in the JunoCam project set up by NASA. It’s the closest you’ll ever get to be an astronaut without even leaving your chair.

Jupiter's cloud bands extend hundreds of kilometers beneath the cloud deck. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/GSFC

Jupiter’s cloud bands extend for hundreds of kilometers into the atmosphere

Jupiter's cloud bands extend hundreds of kilometers beneath the cloud deck. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/GSFC

Jupiter’s cloud bands extend hundreds of kilometers beneath the cloud deck. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/GSFC

The fifth planet from the sun is famous for its multi-coloured bands that dot its atmosphere, making Jupiter resemble a marble. Until recently, no one was sure whether these stripes are only on the surface, like blemishes, or extended farther inward. Thanks to an unprecedented look inside Jupiter’s atmosphere by the Juno spacecraft, we now know these stripes reach at least 350 to 400 kilometers beneath the outermost halo.

Peeling Jupiter

These remarkable findings were made public last week by Scott Bolton, head of the Juno mission, at the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences.

It took the Juno spacecraft five years to reach the massive planet, but it eventually entered its orbit on July 4. It soon after turned over a slew of gems like the first ever colour image of Jupiter from orbit, as well as valuable data. For instance, thanks to Juno, we now know why Jupiter’s atmosphere is so hot — because of its famous red spot.

Now, the same Juno probe peered through Jupiter’s clouds, which optical light can’t penetrate. Using microwave instruments that each probe the coloured stripes at different wavelengths, NASA scientists were able to distinguish between the various types of clouds, like peeling back the layers of an onion. The microwave data revealed a striking find: some of these stripes are still visible deep into the cloud.

“The structure of the zones and belts still exists deep down,” Bolton said during a news conference .”So whatever’s making those colors, whatever’s making those stripes, is still existing pretty far down into Jupiter. That came as a surprise to many of the scientists. We didn’t know if this was [just] skin-deep.”

“Deep down, Jupiter is similar but also very different than what we see on the surface,” Bolton added. “We can’t tell what all of it means yet, but it’s telling us hints about the deep dynamics and chemistry of Jupiter’s atmosphere.”

Interestingly enough, the bands from the top clouds are not identical to those seen in the subsequent layers, despite the similarities.

“They’re evolving. They’re not staying the same,” Bolton said. The finding “hints [at] the deep dynamics and the chemistry of Jupiter’s atmosphere. And this is the first time we’ve seen any giant planet atmosphere underneath its layers. So we’re learning about atmospheric dynamics at a very basic level.”

The microwave measurements were made during Juno’s flyby of Jupiter on August 27. The closest encounter between the gas giant and a man-made craft also returned other interesting findings. For instance, by measuring the magnetic field of the planet, NASA scientists found that Jupiter’s beautiful auroras are not unlike the northern and southern lights that flash in the polar skies on Earth — that’s despite that these are 100 times brighter than on Earth and stretch over a huge surface.

There is still much to learn about Jupiter and as long as Juno is still operational, we will learn more. Right now, the probe is on a non-circular orbit which takes 53 days to complete but will soon fire its engine to enter a 14-day orbit.


Juno captures the closest-ever pictures of Jupiter we’ve seen — and its hair-raising voice

NASA has just shared the data from Juno’s flyby of Jupiter last week, containing the most detailed images of the gas giant that humans have ever seen. The new information surprised even the specialists who didn’t expect how unique the largest planet in the Solar System would prove to be up-close.

The Romans never regarded Jupiter as a merciful god. This infrared picture of the giant’s southern aurora certainly doesn’t seem to contradict them.
Image credits NASA / JPL-Caltech.

Following a five-year journey through space, the Juno probe entered Jupiter’s orbit in July. Last week, it got closer to the planet than any other spacecraft in history and managed to take some breathtaking snaps of the giant. It took NASA one and a half days to download the treasure trove of images from this historical six-hour flyby. The pictures revealed previously unseen storm and weather systems, and Jupiter’s never-before-seen north pole.

“[We got our] first glimpse of Jupiter’s north pole, and it looks like nothing we have seen or imagined before,” says principal investigator of the Juno mission Scott Bolton, from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.

“It’s bluer in colour up there than other parts of the planet, and there are a lot of storms.”

Far from the orderly striped appearance of Jupiter’s midsection, the north pole is a swirling mass of roiling hurricane-like storms.

Jupiter’s northern pole.
Image credits NASA / JPL-Caltech.

“There is no sign of the latitudinal bands or zone and belts that we are used to – this image is hardly recognisable as Jupiter,” says Bolton. “We’re seeing signs that the clouds have shadows, possibly indicating that the clouds are at a higher altitude than other features.”

One thing scientists expected to see but didn’t is a hexagonal formation over the north pole, a structure which other Solar System gas giants — such as Saturn — have.

“Saturn has a hexagon at the north pole,” says Bolton. “There is nothing on Jupiter that anywhere near resembles that. The largest planet in our Solar System is truly unique.”

Along with the images of the north pole, the Juno team used an infrared device – the Italian Space Agency’s Jovian Infrared Auroral Mapper (JIRAM) – to analyse Jupiter’s polar regions in infrared wavelengths. This revealed warm and hot spots all over the giant’s polar regions and also gave us our first glimpse of the planet’s southern aurora.

“JIRAM is getting under Jupiter’s skin, giving us our first infrared close-ups of the planet,” says researcher Alberto Adriani from the Istituto di Astrofisica e Planetologia Spaziali in Rome. “And while we knew that the first ever infrared views of Jupiter’s south pole could reveal the planet’s southern aurora, we were amazed to see it for the first time.”

During the flyby, Juno passed about 4,200 kilometres (2,600 miles) above Jupiter’s clouds and it activated all eight of its onboard data collection instruments. One of these, the Radio/Plasma Wave Experiment instrument (Waves), recorded radio emissions thought to be produced by Jupiter’s auroras.

By converting these signals into an audio frequency, NASA put together a recording of the rest of Jupiter’s “voice” — and it will make the hairs stand on the back of your head.

“Jupiter is talking to us in a way only gas-giant worlds can,” says Waves co-investigator Bill Kurth from the University of Iowa.

“Waves detected the signature emissions of the energetic particles that generate the massive auroras which encircle Jupiter’s north pole. These emissions are the strongest in the Solar System. Now we are going to try to figure out where the electrons come from that are generating them.”

NASA researchers have only now begun analysing the data from the probe’s first sweep of the planet, but with 35 more orbital flybys yet to come, one thing’s for sure: Juno’s only just started spilling Jupiter’s secrets.

“It’s going to be a flood,” Juno project scientist Steve Levin from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory told Amina Khan at the Los Angeles Times. “Like drinking from a fire hose.”

NASA’s Juno shuttle gets up close and personal with Jupiter

NASA’s Juno shuttle will get closer to Jupiter than any other man-made structure.

“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,” the mission’s principle investigator said.

This dual view of Jupiter was taken on August 23, when NASA’s Juno spacecraft was 2.8 million miles (4.4 million kilometers) from the gas giant planet.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS

At the time of the approach, Juno will be about 2,600 miles (4,200 kilometers) above Jupiter’s swirling clouds, traveling at 130,000 mph (208,000 kilometers per hour) relative to Jupiter.

So far, everything is going according to plan – Juno’s instruments all seem to be working properly, and the shuttle’s camera (JunoCam) will take several snapshots of the gas giant. Some high-resolution photos of Jupiter are expected to come next week.

“This is the first time we will be close to Jupiter since we entered orbit on July 4,” said Scott Bolton, principal investigator of Juno from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “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.”

However, because of the immense importance of the mission, astronomers want to make sure they get everything right before they start releasing information, so it may take a while before we get to see what Juno sees.

“No other spacecraft has ever orbited Jupiter this closely, or over the poles in this fashion,” said Steve Levin, Juno project scientist from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “This is our first opportunity and there are bound to be surprises. We need to take our time to make sure our conclusions are correct.”

The Juno shuttle was launched in 2011, and it reached Jupiter’s atmosphere on the 5th of July, 2016. Juno has stabilized itself in a polar orbit, the best position to study Jupiter’s composition, gravity field, magnetic field, and polar magnetosphere. Juno will also search for clues about how the planet formed, including whether it has a rocky core, the amount of water present within the deep atmosphere, mass distribution, and its deep winds, which can reach speeds of 618 kilometers per hour (384 mph). A significant innovation brought by the Juno mission is that unlike its predecessors (which used nuclear power to fly), Juno relies only on solar panels to power itself.

Welcome to Jupiter! Juno spacecraft successfully enters orbit

It was a very tense night at NASA’s headquarters, as scientists and engineers were holding their breath to see what happens. Shouts of joy filled the air as Juno’s success became evident and the shuttle enrolled on the gas giant’s orbit.

The Juno spacecraft edged its way around Jupiter, embarking on a quest to help us better understand the gas giant. Artistic depiction, via NASA.

“All stations on Juno co-ord, we have the tone for burn cut-off on Delta B,” Juno Mission Control had announced. “Roger Juno, welcome to Jupiter.”

Those are the words NASA has been hoping to hear since 2011 when Juno was launched. Traveling at a speed of 165,000mph toward a swirling gas giant Monday night, Juno would get no second chances. Thankfully, it didn’t need any. It got it right the first time, adopting a polar trajectory above the gas giant.

The shuttle’s purpose is to offer an unprecedented view of Jupiter, offering real color pictures as well as physical information about the planet’s magnetic and gravitational field.

Scientists also plan to use Juno to study Jupiter’s depths. They believe that there are chemical signatures on the planet which could give us important clues about the planet’s birth and evolution through the history of the solar system.

“Nasa did it again,” said an elated Scott Bolton, Juno’s principal investigator. “That says it all to me. And I’m so happy to be part of the team that did that. I mean this team has worked so hard and we have such great people. And it’s almost like a dream coming true right here.”

Another artistic representation of Juno spiraling around Jupiter, via NASA.

It’s not the first time we send a shuttle to Jupiter, the Galileo probe surveying the gas giant two decades ago. However, Juno will take a much more in-depth look at the planet. With its two magnetometers it will map Jupiter’s magnetic field, also taking samples from Jupiter’s clouds, in an attempt to understand how hydrogen behaves at the huge pressures inside Jupiter.

No other shuttle in history got as close to Jupiter as Juno making this a unique and thrilling opportunity, but it’s one which must be exploited as soon as possible. Due to Jupiter’s huge gravitational and magnetic fields, the electronics aboard are expected to deteriorate quickly and start malfunctioning within one or two years, falling victim to radiation. The mission will, therefore, start immediately, when Juno embarks upon its first elongated orbit, spanning 53 days.

To make things even more tantalizing, Jupiter won’t be sending any data towards Earth as it passes through Jupiter’s radiation field, which means we’ll have to wait until late August before we receive any data.


NASA’s solar-powered Juno shuttle breaks record distance at 793 million km from the Sun

Juno is part of NASA’s New Frontiers program that wants to get up-close and personal with several planets in our solar system. The shuttle itself is going towards Jupiter to study its gravity field, magnetic field, and polar magnetosphere. Juno will also search for clues about how the planet formed, including whether it has a rocky core, the amount of water present within the deep atmosphere, how its mass is distributed, and its deep wind.

Juno is the first mission to Jupiter to use solar panels instead of the radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTG) and recently, it became the farthest solar-powered trip in the history of space exploration.

Image credits: NASA / JPL.

Hitting a whopping 793 million kilometres (493 million miles) from the Sun, Juno’s accomplishment is even more impressive when you realize that the farther it goes away, the less energy it receives from the Sun.

“Jupiter is five times farther from the Sun than Earth, and the sunlight that reaches that far out packs 25 times less punch,” said Rick Nybakken, Juno’s project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “While our massive solar arrays will be generating only 500 watts when we are at Jupiter, Juno is very efficiently designed, and it will be more than enough to get the job done.”

Its efficiency is owed in large part to the craft’s distinctive shape, jam packed with 18,698 individual solar cells. If it were located around the Earth, the volume of solar cells spread out over approximately 72 square metres (775 square foot) of panelling would generate approximately 14 kilowatts of electricity.

But Juno will get 832 million kilometres (517 million miles) away from the Sun, 6 times farther away then the Earth. This will really test its energy generating capacity to the maximum.

“Juno is all about pushing the edge of technology to help us learn about our origins,” said Bolton. “We use every known technique to see through Jupiter’s clouds and reveal the secrets Jupiter holds of our Solar System’s early history. It just seems right that the Sun is helping us learn about the origin of Jupiter and the other planets that orbit it.”

After arriving in Jupiter’s orbit, Juno will conduct 37 orbits, using its suite of instruments to study the gas giant. The estimated time of arrival is 4 July 2016.